‘We Were Helpless’: Despair at the CDC as the Covid Pandemic Erupted
Current and former employees recall rising desperation as Trump administration officials squelched research into the new coronavirus.
In early March 2020, as the nation succumbed to a pandemic, a group of young scientists walked out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. They left quietly, one or two at a time, through the building’s front doors, flashing their badges at guards, instead of through side exits where their departures would be recorded.
Gathering in a small park across the street, they stood with their coffees in hand and agonized over some shocking developments.
All through February 2020, agency scientists had been gathering evidence that the new coronavirus was being spread by people without symptoms. In early March, the C.D.C. said that any employee who had been deployed elsewhere to track Covid-19 must isolate at home for 14 days, whether or not he or she had symptoms.
To the scientists gathered outside, trainees in the agency’s vaunted Epidemic Intelligence Service, the implication was clear: C.D.C. leaders realized that the virus was being spread not just by people who were coughing and sneezing, but also by people who were not visibly ill. But the agency had not yet warned the public.
“All of us knew tens of thousands were going to die, and we were helpless to stop it,” said Dr. Daniel Wozniczka, one of the trainees. “It was really heartbreaking and difficult on a psychological level not to be able to do anything.”
It is generally known that morale at the C.D.C. plummeted as Trump administration officials sought to squelch dissent among career scientists who disagreed with the White House’s handling of the pandemic. But few employees have described the despair inside the beleaguered agency as hospitals overflowed with patients and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues.
Interviews with 11 current and former agency employees, including trainees at the E.I.S., as well as a review of text messages and other documents obtained by The New York Times, portray an agency under intense pressure from the country’s political leaders. Some younger staff members wrestled with guilt, anger and a rising sense of powerlessness as administration officials meddled with or simply disregarded important scientific research.
Dr. Wozniczka, 35, left the C.D.C. in July 2021 and sought help from Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit legal organization. He testified before a House subcommittee on the pandemic last August and October, describing a disconnect between what C.D.C.’s scientists were learning about the coronavirus in early 2020 and the agency’s public stance on the risks.
Other scientists still at the C.D.C. spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions at work. Many said they had sought therapy or had begun taking medication to cope with their frustration and disillusionment. Some said they were frequently in tears.
“I’m angry about this every day,” one E.I.S. officer said of the agency’s treatment by Trump administration officials.
The early days of the pandemic marked “an unprecedented and extremely challenging time for everyone working in public health,” the C.D.C. said in a statement, adding that it was “particularly challenging” for new E.I.S. officers who were deployed to places without the usual social support networks.
“We were deeply concerned about maintaining the morale of our E.I.S. officers and provided multiple support systems for staff, including additional support by E.I.S. leadership,” the statement said.
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At the onset of a fast-moving, mysterious outbreak, it wasn’t always clear when scientific evidence had reached a tipping point, the agency said.
“C.D.C. was clear at the beginning of the pandemic that Covid-19 was a new disease, and we were still learning how it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States,” the agency said.
The agency said its recommendation for staff to isolate, symptoms or not, was “based on the incubation period for Covid-19” and was consistent with guidance from the State Department for people who had traveled to certain countries.
It was an extraordinarily difficult time even for veteran scientists at the agency, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the C.D.C.’s principal deputy director until her retirement in May 2021.
If they were silent about the risks to the public, it was only because government researchers were muzzled by the Trump administration, she said. But “most of the media was vilifying the agency.”
Young researchers often see public health — and particularly the E.I.S. — as a sort of higher calling, far removed from politics and the marketplace.
“It sounds so idealistic, but it is why you go into a job like that,” said Dr. Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative at Stanford University and an alumna of the E.I.S.
“It’s not for glory, and certainly not for money,” she added.
But the arrival of the pandemic laid to rest those illusions. The first big shock came in February 2020, when the Trump administration reprimanded Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a senior C.D.C. official, for warning Americans to prepare for a pandemic.
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Two days later, on Feb. 27, C.D.C. employees were told that all messaging from the agency would be routed through Vice President Mike Pence, who had assumed leadership of the coronavirus task force.
That day, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, who led the C.D.C. during the swine flu pandemic of 2009, declared on Twitter that the coronavirus “pandemic is coming,” prompting one E.I.S. officer to remark: “Someday I hope to tweet with the freedom of a former C.D.C. Director.”
Things were unfolding strangely on the ground, as well. E.I.S. officers were dispatched to airports around the country to screen passengers arriving from China for infection with the new virus — but told not to wear masks, so as not to alarm the public.
“It was mind-boggling because, first, it defies common sense,” said one officer, who recalled that Chinese air passengers were arriving in N95 masks only to be evaluated by C.D.C. officials who were maskless.
At any rate, E.I.S. officers quickly saw the futility of screening for symptoms.
In Honolulu, where Dr. Wozniczka was deployed, only one infected person had the symptoms the C.D.C. had identified early on, recalled Dr. Paul Kitsutani, Dr. Wozniczka’s supervisor. (Dr. Kitsutani retired from the C.D.C. in 2021.) A C.D.C. report in November concluded that the airport screening had identified just one case after screening 85,000 travelers.
Data emerging from China and elsewhere strongly suggested asymptomatic spread, and the airport screenings seemed to support it. As Dr. Wozniczka became increasingly alarmed, Dr. Kitsutani encouraged him to share his concerns with superiors in Atlanta.
When Dr. Wozniczka returned to Atlanta, he realized that the possibility of asymptomatic transmission was a surprise to no one. All through February, agency scientists had reviewed the increasingly compelling evidence, and data from the C.D.C.’s own investigation of residents at nursing homes in Seattle in early March confirmed it.
Privately, many E.I.S. officers were already advising friends and family to cancel weddings and planned vacations, to stay home, and to wear masks and even goggles when they ventured outside.
Some officers created social media accounts to talk frankly about the emerging evidence around asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus, and the best ways for people to protect themselves.
In an internal memo on March 9, the C.D.C. said that any employee who had been deployed elsewhere to work on Covid-19 was required to isolate at home for 14 days — symptoms or not.
Three days later, E.I.S. officers were told to stop posting about Covid on social media, according to internal communications obtained by The New York Times. (Dr. Wozniczka did not initially comply, but did so after he was threatened with dismissal.)
It was only on March 30 that the C.D.C. director, Dr. Robert Redfield, warned of asymptomatic transmission of the novel coronavirus in a radio interview. On April 3, at a White House press briefing, the agency advised Americans to wear masks.
Dr. Redfield did not respond to a request for comment, but he and other top officials at the C.D.C. told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that the White House denied the agency’s requests to hold press briefings on mask guidance. “For a while, none of our briefings were approved,” Dr. Redfield told the committee last year.
The delay in warning the public was a profound regret, Dr. Wozniczka said.
“I wish I had taken my cellphone and just live streamed myself yelling at the top of my lungs,” he said. “More people would have been alive if I had done that.”
As the months wore on, E.I.S. officers worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, at nursing homes, meatpacking plants, airports and cruise ships, doing shoe-leather epidemiology — recording patients’ symptoms, tracing their contacts and charting the spread of the virus.
But many of their reports — including ones on when the virus arrived in the United States, guidance for meatpacking plants and religious services and on the risks to children — were suppressed or altered beyond recognition by the Trump administration, several said. (The House select subcommittee on the pandemic concluded that the Trump administration had meddled in or blocked at least 19 reports.)
Morale plunged after a May 2020 report estimated that imposing social distancing measures one week earlier in March 2020 would have saved 36,000 lives.
In August 2020, Michael R. Caputo, then the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, described C.D.C. scientists as lazy and as traitors engaging in sedition.
“This is just downright hurtful,” one officer wrote at the time in a group conversation.
“It’s like we’re in hell or the twilight zone,” wrote another.
Outraged, a group of officers gathered in Piedmont Park in Atlanta on Sept. 15. Dr. Redfield was scheduled to host an agencywide meeting two days later. The officers came up with questions for him about the agency’s response and sent them in. The meeting was canceled.
In October 2020, more than 1,000 current and former E.I.S. officers wrote an open letter condemning the Trump administration’s silencing of the C.D.C. Some of the trainees chose to remain anonymous. Some did not sign at all, fearful that they might somehow be identified.
By the end of the year, many of even the most resilient officers were struggling. One recalled pleading with an older woman who had lung cancer and desperately needed medical help.
The woman refused to go to the emergency department because her husband would not be allowed in with her, even though she knew she would die if she did not. After trying in vain to convince her, the officer left the woman and sat in her car, sobbing.
When their two-year program ended, in June 2021, many fellows left the agency. Others stayed on, but with a starkly different life than they had imagined. Some said they have stopped mentioning their jobs in public.
“One single person hearing that you work at the C.D.C. could ruin your day, because they’re just going to sort of scream at you,” said one officer.
At a family gathering, her brother, who wanted to organize a rally against vaccine mandates, told her he did not trust “government scientists.”
“I told him government scientists are people exactly like me, your sister — a person you hopefully trust,” she recalled. It made no difference.
The officers could easily make twice as much money elsewhere, one still at the agency pointed out: “But that’s not how things get better.”