CDC Shines, Shutdown or Not

Over the past week and a half since the government shutdown began, I have been thinking about my colleagues at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They include those who are working as part of a skeleton crew to keep the agency running during the shutdown and those furloughed who are not allowed to work.

Regardless of their current status, I know the shutdown creates frustration and concern since all staff at CDC rightfully view their jobs as working 24/7 to protect the health security of the citizens and businesses of the United States. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden recently highlighted his concerns about the shutdown when he said, “With two-thirds of CDC staff unable to work, we’re less likely to be able to protect America. The microbes and other threats did not shut down and we are less safe.”

CDCThrough the shutdown, we’ve lost most of CDC’s staff doing front-line global disease detection, or protecting our borders from infectious diseases that come from overseas. And, the agency’s ability to help clinical and public health officials across the United States has been crippled. Every day CDC is shuttered is a reminder of the critical role its scientists play in keeping Americans safe.

Despite these challenges, I strongly believe that CDC, if given the resources it needs, is up to the task. It’s widely known that CDC has been a public health leader for decades. As Dr. Frieden said in his National Press Club remarks, one reason is that CDC has a continuous improvement mentality. According to him, there is “a restlessness about saying: How could it be better? What more could we do? How can we use the data that we’re collecting to protect people even more effectively?” I admire this approach, particularly in the face of the challenges just specified and growing skepticism about government more generally. Of course, I’m not the only one who feels this way. U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in a floor statement earlier this year said:

“At a time when the U.S. government is not looked upon with a lot of favor by the American people, I think it is very interesting to note that a recent Gallup poll identified the CDC as the most trusted federal government agency with the American people. I think that is something to which we owe a tip of the hat.”

An agency like CDC that is kept from working, or working at full capacity, is not able to effectively fulfill what Dr. Frieden has termed the government’s first responsibility—to help ensure the safety of people. As he put it, “If we can’t do that, then we can’t move on to other responsibilities and it’s frustrating that so many of our world-renowned experts have been told they can’t work during this time.”

Let’s hope CDC—from its frontline disease detectives to its behind-the-scenes staff carrying out a wide variety of vital public health programs—are able to return to their jobs soon. The health security and wellbeing of our nation depends on it.

Charles Stokes is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.