Top CDC official warns US not ready for next pandemic
The No. 2 official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning that without consistent, long-term funding for public health, the U.S. won’t be any better prepared for the next pandemic.
In an interview with The Hill on Wednesday, Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, said the U.S. was not prepared for COVID-19 due to years of inadequate investment in public health infrastructure.
Emergency funding has helped public health agencies fight back against the coronavirus, Schuchat said, but unless that level of spending can be sustained, the country is in danger of repeating the same mistakes.
“I think the critical learning about how to do better next time is the need to greatly invest in public health, and not just respond to emergencies,” Schuchat said. “This is a big job, and it can’t be like Ebola or H1N1 where there’s emergency funding and then everything goes away. This needs to be sustained, or we will be exactly where we were last year.”
Schuchat is set to retire this month after 33 years at the agency. She doesn’t have the same public profile as Anthony Fauci, but she has spent her career in the upper echelons of America’s public health agency, including six years as principal deputy director.
Another lesson learned the hard way, Schuchat said, was that the nation’s Strategic National Stockpile was ill-equipped to handle the sudden surge in demand for personal protective equipment and ventilator supplies when COVID-19 took hold.
“It’s been a wakeup call,” Schuchat said.
Experts have said that early in 2020, the officials in charge of overseeing the stockpile warned officials at the Department of Health and Human Services about supply shortages, but were ignored.
Schuchat said such shortages are still a concern, but she’s grateful Congress is now paying attention to the issue.
“I think that this is one of those big issues that we’re already seeing major progress on that we were not ready for,” Schuchat said.
During her tenure at the CDC, Schuchat also served two short stints as acting director during the Trump administration; once at the start, and then again after Trump nominee Brenda Fitzgerald resigned after seven months due to a scandal about purchasing tobacco stocks.
Like other top public health officials, Schuchat faced criticism from the former president and his allies over her warnings about the potential for a global pandemic as the coronavirus began spreading last year.
As the CDC ramped up its response, the Trump administration began bringing to bear political pressure on what has been a historically apolitical agency.
Public health experts and former agency officials have said there’s an inevitable mix of politics and public health at the CDC, and the agency works best when there’s collaboration between staff and White House officials.
Still, “this was a whole other level” of pressure, Schuchat said, without elaborating on specifics.
“The more coordinated, science-based and learning or response you have, you know, a response that’s committed to continual improvement, the more effective the prevention will be. And so a fragmented response or one that isn’t well coordinated is likely to be less effective,” Schuchat said.
Broadly, she said she was “disappointed” with how politicized public health has become recently.
“It was going to be a very difficult pandemic regardless of the cultural or political or social issues,” Schuchat said.
“Politicization has not helped, and, you know, there have been times where I’ve been so grateful of solidarity and the community that I’ve seen in people coming together, and there have been times I’ve been very disappointed in, really, the politicization of the efforts that potentially made things worse.”
Schuchat said she thinks the U.S. is in a “good place” right now, as the number of new COVID-19 infections, deaths and hospitalizations are all declining.
Still, she urged people to stay vigilant and get vaccinated against the coronavirus as a number of more readily transmissible and potentially deadly strains begin to circulate through the country.
“The more of us that are vaccinated, the less likely the variants are to win. And you know, around the world, there’s a lot of places where the variants are winning. So we have pretty much all of those scary variants here in the U.S. but in low numbers” because the vaccines are effective against them, Schuchat said.
She also warned that the situation is very different in other parts of the world.
“It’s really important that we remember the global situation. This is a global pandemic, countries have been hit at different times in different ways, and none of us are finished with this particular virus,” Schuchat said.
President Biden set a target of July 4 to get at least 70 percent of U.S. adults partially vaccinated. The country is at risk of missing that target, as nationwide demand for vaccines has dropped considerably.
Officials have reached the “low hanging fruit” of people most willing to get vaccinated, and so the effort has now shifted to reaching the people who were unable, or unwilling, to get vaccinated earlier.
Schuchat said the declining demand was concerning, though she acknowledged her agency had planned for the drop-off.
“We expected three general phases to the vaccination effort: an initial phase where demand greatly exceeded supply; a phase where supply would be able to keep up with the demand; and then a phase where supply would exceed demand. So, that phase that we’re in right now in the United States is not at all surprising to me,” she said.
“I’m encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far and recognize we’re in a phase where things [are] quite different. Not, you know, big stadiums, vaccinating thousands a day, but mobile efforts and pharmacists and primary care docs and faith based leaders and others really bringing the vaccine to where people are making it super easy for people and helping with their vaccine confidence.”