‘They let us down’: Botched COVID-19 response seriously shakes public confidence in the CDC

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Credit: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket

The C.D.C., long considered the world’s premier health agency, made early testing mistakes that contributed to a cascade of problems that persist today as the country tries to reopen. It failed to provide timely counts of infections and deaths, hindered by aging technology and a fractured public health reporting system. And it hesitated in absorbing the lessons of other countries, including the perils of silent carriers spreading the infection.

The agency struggled to calibrate its own imperative to be cautious and the need to move fast as the coronavirus ravaged the country, according to a review of thousands of emails and interviews with more than 100 state and federal officials, public health experts, C.D.C. employees and medical workers. In communicating to the public, its leadership was barely visible, its stream of guidance was often slow and its messages were sometimes confusing, sowing mistrust.

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“They let us down,” said Dr. Stephane Otmezguine, an anesthesiologist who treated coronavirus patients in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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“Here is an agency that has been waiting its entire existence for this moment,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, a former associate commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration who for years worked closely with the C.D.C. “And then they flub it. It is very sad. That is what they were set up to do.”

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