The COVID-19 Pandemic: "That Was the Week That Was"Sep 21, 2020
Those who were around during the 1960s (and our numbers are ever smaller) remember the British TV show—That Was the Week That Was—hosted by David Frost. The show’s title matches too well the challenges of last week.
Let’s start with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the waffling on testing recommendations and interference by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) bureaucrats with the CDC. The New York Times tells the story well, publishing a disturbing email that details an attack on Dr. Ann Schuchat, the CDC’s Principal Deputy Director, sent by a “consultant” to Michael R. Caputo, HHS’s top spokesman. Caputo is now on leave and the email’s author is gone. However, the story exemplifies the intrusion of politics into the pandemic, leading to an erosion of the CDC’s stature, to the detriment of public health.
Today brings yet another instance of inexcusable handling of science. Recently and without fanfare, the CDC posted that airborne transmission was responsible for much of the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The posting, which mentioned both droplets and small particles, was taken down today. I described the significance of transmission by aerosols a few weeks ago, reporting on the workshop of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine for which I chaired the planning. We need consistency in communications on critical scientific matters related to the pandemic.
Since its founding in 1946, the CDC has grown from its original mission of malaria control to a complex, multi-center agency with a broad mission. Its first sentence reads: “CDC works 24/7 to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S.,” and its last sentence: “To accomplish our mission, CDC conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when these arise.” Trust is implicit as the nation turns to the CDC for health information and that trust has been continually eroded as the pandemic has played out. There were problems with the CDC’s testing at the start, but since then the agency has been positioned as a marginal player, and last week, its director was directly contradicted by the President.
Trust in the CDC and governmental activities related to the pandemic will be critical when efficacious vaccines are rolled out. Already, the news on trust in vaccines is disturbing with reports that only 50% of Americans would accept a vaccination. The anti-vaccination movement is seizing the moment.
Last week’s speaker in our collaborative series with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science was Baylor’s Peter Hotez, a leading vaccinologist and a tireless opponent of the anti-vaccine movement. Peter gave a useful update of the status of vaccines (there are promising candidates) and commented on the need to build trust to combat misinformation – a barrier that needs to be taken down now.
I have previously written about polio vaccination in these postings. The contrast between possible hesitancy for SARS-CoV-2 vaccination and the rollout of the polio vaccine is striking. The definitive field trial, led by the legendary Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., involved 1.8 million children and was largely funded by the March of Dimes. Once available, America’s children were vaccinated without hesitancy and polio has long been eliminated in the United States.
And, plan on listening to the September 28 speaker in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science series: Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. Georges will provide a broad perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic and public health. If you missed Dr. Alfred Sommer, the inaugural Richard Hamman lecturer, a recording of his presentation can be found online.
Avoiding politics, I want to acknowledge the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the “Notorious RBG.” Her contributions are myriad and were critical to advancing women in so many ways.
Fall starts tomorrow, so wear your mask.