In his first address to the staff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield called the Atlanta-based agency “the best science-based, data-driven agency in the world.”
His voice breaking repeatedly as he tried without success to hold back tears, Redfield — named director of the CDC in March 2018 — told thousands of employees he had long dreamed of leading the prestigious institution, considered the gold-standard for public health agencies around the globe. He made them a solemn vow.
“My pledge to you is that I will work to continue this legacy,” said Redfield, a virologist and physician who specialized in the care of people with HIV. “We’re not an opinion organization. We’re a science-based, data-driven organization. That’s why CDC has the credibility around the world that it has.”
Now, 2 1/2 years into his tenure, the storied agency finds itself in new and treacherous waters, its reputation stained, and the morale of its staff at a historic low, current and former CDC insiders told STAT. Many say Redfield is not doing enough to safeguard the reputation of the CDC and the integrity of its work, and that he is failing to successfully fend off political interference that is eroding Americans’ trust in the organization.
“I find it concerning that the CDC director has not been outspoken when there have been instances of clear political interference in the interpretation of science,” said Richard Besser, a former acting CDC director and now president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Former CDC staffers, a number of whom exchange worried emails bemoaning the state of the agency, are deeply alarmed but wary of speaking out. One former official said current staff are in a quandary over what to do. “Even if you got a dozen of them to resign at the same time, it’s a one-day story,” said the former official.
Others were willing to speak publicly.
“I think [Redfield]’s not showing the kind of leadership in defense of the institution and in defense of science that I would hope to see,” said Mark Rosenberg, who was the first director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
“A reputation that takes 75 years to build can be destroyed in four months. That’s horrifying,” said Rosenberg, who is now retired but remains in touch with former colleagues.
Public health experts at the CDC who led the country’s responses to countless threats over decades — the deadly emergence of HIV, the anthrax attacks of the autumn of 2001, SARS, the H1N1 flu pandemic, and Ebola — have been sidelined and silenced by the administration in the midst of President Trump’s reelection campaign.
On multiple occasions, guidance documents written by CDC staff — recommendations that are meant to be the most up-to-date distillation of the emerging science on the SARS-CoV-2 virus — have been revised by political appointees in Washington to reflect…