Former CDC director William “Bill” Foege, MD, MPH, blasted an unnamed Republican lawmaker and an unnamed Trump administration official for casting doubt on the agency during remarks given at a virtual celebration of the 70-year anniversary of the agency’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) on Friday.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) previously tore into the agency at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee hearing on May 11, claiming she had lost respect for the CDC. While in the past she viewed the agency’s guidance as “the gold standard” she no longer did, she said.
“It hurts me greatly to have a senator say she no longer trusts CDC,” said Foege.
Collins argued that the agency had bowed to pressure from teachers’ unions in its schools reopening guidance, and overstated the risk of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 in its reports, which ultimately undermined her and the public’s trust.
Foege cited the irony of “a politician in 2021, telling us who to trust,” before highlighting another official, this time a “public health member of the White House Task Force,” who also said “she didn’t trust what came from CDC.”
Though he did not give a name, Deborah Birx, MD, was the former White House coronavirus response coordinator under the Trump administration. She reportedly said in May 2020, “There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust.”
Even while lashing out at the CDC’s critics, Foege said these concerns gave him pause and forced him to take another look at the agency and “now belatedly … I’m wondering if we need checks and balances in public health.”
He clarified that such a system would need to be established internally and “not [be] something imposed from without. We need to reestablish CDC as the gold standard, not by saying we are the gold standard, but by continuing to prove it every day… and the reputation will come back.”
Foege also acknowledged that he and “people like me” shoulder some of the blame for the mistakes of the past year.
“I kept thinking to myself, the White House task force is going to see the error of what they’re doing and they will change, because it’s always happened in the past, but they didn’t. It didn’t have to happen,” he said, of the escalating pandemic and the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S.
“By the time I spoke up it was too late,” Foege noted. “Public health, got challenged by political bullies, and we didn’t fight back.”
Foege called for training public health workers in political science and for encouraging them to enter politics, “until we have as many public health people as lawyers in Congress.”
In addition to taking back the reins of public health domestically, Foege called for the CDC to reestablish its role as a leader in the global community. It has the opportunity to do so right now by becoming a leader in global vaccination efforts, Foege said.
“[T]hink what could happen if the U.S. headed a program to vaccinate one billion people in 100 days,” he suggested.