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In lieu of a COVID Commission, a new report exposes CDC failures

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.)
Greg Nash
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) leaves the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.

It now seems certain that the omnibus appropriations bill will not authorize a COVID Commission. For over two years, members of Congress have proposed a national body to draw lessons from the nation’s experience with COVID to inform future decision-makers on how to better handle the next pandemic. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and President Biden never demonstrated enthusiasm for the idea. One reason is that previous national commissions have examined events, e.g., the financial crisis of 2009, that are settled in history. COVID rages on. President Biden may also worry that a credible bipartisan report, like the one proposed by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), could be damning to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency to which he’s promised a 21 percent budget increase next year.  

Despite being in the spotlight, the CDC has yet to demonstrate any improvement in stopping recurring waves of COVID, nor has it generated confidence that it can prevent either monkeypox or RSV. Worse, there is concern that mRNA vaccines may be tied to fatal adverse effects. If so, the question of why the Food and Drug Administration and CDC did not require randomized clinical trials for the most recent COVID boosters to establish safety will be hard to avoid. 

Thankfully, an extraordinary effort by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, may have provided the nation with the next best thing to a commission report. Last week, committee staff delivered a remarkably comprehensive report, 242 pages long, on the government’s response to COVID-19. Its title gives up the game: “Historically Unprepared.”

Unlike previous reports by The Commonwealth Fund and the National Academies of Science, which studiously avoided criticism of the CDC, Peters’ report offers lawyerly “findings of fact,” that points out that the CDC was not remotely prepared to manage an epidemic that its own experts said was inevitable.  

Peters’ report tells that the CDC had no preexisting research relevant to developing a COVID test; no stockpile of PPE supplies or plan for distributing them; was uninformed regarding supply chain issues relating to therapeutic drugs and had no sense of the nation’s hospitals’ capacity to treat COVID victims. Further, it resisted help from private sector laboratories to develop testing. The simplest epidemiological reasoning about Americans at most risk, thinking that guided Britain’s focus on first protecting those over 65 with relevant co-morbidities, was missing in the CDC’s thinking. 

Peters, a Democrat, is hard on President Trump. The president’s daily commentary offered little comfort and, more than once, useless, even dangerous, advice. Consider, however, the president was bound to rely on the CDC, an agency that consistently failed to provide him or the public with timely and accurate advice on the nature of the virus or steps that might contain its spread. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s official spokesperson, promoted a constantly changing list of largely ineffective actions. Sanitizing grocery carts did not slow COVID’s spread and some studies say social distancing didn’t help and masking with up to three masks(!) might not have either. 

Overall, the committee’s report is a model of what a competent governmental investigation should look like. The staff examined over 70,000 pages of materials recording how the government responded to the crisis. It also conducted 90 interviews, many with professionals who had relevant knowledge of agency operations. 

Peters’s committee report settled upon 17 solid recommendations for future responses to pandemics. One recommendation, providing the CDC substantially more money, seems discordant with the report’s other findings. Despite nearly $5 billion in additional funds allocated by Congress for “data modernization” over the last five budgets, the report finds the CDC has yet to standardize data collection among various public agencies.    

Without fundamental reform, it is a leap of faith to believe that the CDC can do a better job with more resources. Peters’ report recalls that past heads of the agency failed to take even the basic steps necessary to have checked the spread of COVID, despite explicit recommendations by previous review panels. Political appointees seldom prove equal to the task of reforming their agencies. Tenured underlings know how to wait them out. 

If the CDC cannot self-correct, perhaps it’s time to turn to the private sector to do some critical tasks, e.g., using state-of-the-art information technology to continuously monitor the health of the entire population and detect new communicable diseases as they appear in real time. A private sector alternative could make interventions intended to preserve the public’s health more timely and effectively, resulting in more Americans surviving future pandemics. 

Carl Schramm, an economist, is a university Professor at Syracuse University, former CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, and author of “Burn the Business Plan.” He is a member of the Covid Commission Planning Group. 

Tags 9/11 Commission Biden Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Chuck Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Gary Peters Joe Biden Monkeypox RSV

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