U.S. Still Underprepared for Pandemic Threats, CDC Head Says

The U.S. remains underprepared for major pandemic health threats, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress, citing major shortfalls revealed by the coronavirus in state, local and federal authorities’ ability to spot and track disease and develop countermeasures.

Congress should invest more money in public health, data modernization and contact tracing, CDC Director Robert Redfield told House lawmakers on Thursday.

“You think we weren’t prepared for this, wait until we have a real global threat for our health security,” Redfield said at a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations, the panel that leads congressional funding of government agencies.

The CDC has long been considered one of the world’s preeminent health agencies, and has been a model for other countries setting up similar organizations. But it has come under criticism for reacting slowly to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 1.86 million Americans and killed at least 107,000. While the agency was fast in developing a test, it had significant problems rolling it out around the country and then largely receded from the public face of the Trump administration’s response to the virus.

In his testimony, Redfield said the agency is having a hard time tracking the impact of the coronavirus on black Americans, making data modernization crucial. Some states are still collecting data “with pen and pencil,” he said.

“Data is the roadmap. It’s fundamentally the key first step that we need to do to address the health disparities,” Redfield said.

The U.S.announced Thursday that it will require testing labs to collect zip code data and demographics including race, ethnicity, sex and age, he said.

The CDC funds as much as 70% of state and local public-health efforts, Redfield said. But significant new preparedness investments are needed, in addition to basic efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“That needs to be augmented,” Redfield said. “The cost of nothing isn’t nothing. the time to do it is now and get that investment.”

He cited local labs as one key area. While New York’s state lab was able to develop its own tests, other states have not done so. Redfield also said that states needed to hire 30,000 to 100,000 contact tracers by September to follow new Covid-19 cases. He said he was hopeful AmeriCorps, a community service program supported by the federal government, would be used to augment the contact-tracing workforce.

Redfield also said masks and face coverings remain an important tool to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“We continue to see this as a critical public health tool,” Redfield said. Responding to questions about large public gathers of unmasked people, he said that, “obviously we’re very concerned that our public-health message isn’t resonating.”

When asked if the CDC has recommended to the White House that tear gas not be used at demonstrations around the country, since coughing can spread the coronavirus, Redfield said, “We have advocated strongly the ability to have face coverings and masks available to protesters.”

When pushed about tear gas he added, “I’ll pass on this comment at the next task force meeting.”

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