Review finds CDC mishandled COVID-19 pandemic response

The "need for change came through loud and clear," a review found.

August 17, 2022, 4:01 PM

A scathing internally initiated review of how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention handled COVID-19 has found that its approach toward the pandemic failed to meet the moment of crisis, and offered a series of changes intended to revamp the agency and make it more nimble.

"For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for COVID-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement on Wednesday.

A fact sheet outlining the review, obtained by ABC News and confirmed by the CDC, said that the "need for change came through loud and clear."

Walensky ordered the review in April after the CDC had come under frequent fire for its muddled and inconsistent messaging on COVID mitigation measures.

During interviews with roughly 120 agency staff and key external stakeholders, the review found that it "takes too long for CDC to publish its data and science for decision making," that its guidance is "confusing and overwhelming" and that agency staff turnover during the COVID response "created gaps and other challenges for partners," according to findings obtained by ABC News.

PHOTO: NEWS - Dr. Rochelle Walensky is interviewed in the Emergency Operations Center of the Center of the CDC in Atlanta, Dec. 9, 2021.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky is interviewed in the Emergency Operations Center of the Center of the CDC in Atlanta, Dec. 9, 2021.
Matt Miller/ABC News, FILE

And while Walensky also defended, in part, the overwhelming job of handling the pandemic, the center said the country's public health infrastructure is "frail." The review also revealed the CDC's "operating posture" was "not adequate to effectively respond to a crisis the size and scope" of COVID.

The CDC's goals going forward will focus on improving "accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness" within and outside the agency, the report said.

"As a long-time admirer of this agency and a champion for public health, I want us all to do better and it starts with CDC leading the way," Walensky said in a statement. 

As part of the suggested solutions, Walensky committed to sharing scientific findings and data faster, rather than at the typical speed for academic publication.

"Produce data for action" rather than "data for publication," said a CDC briefing document summarizing the changes.

PHOTO: The Center for Disease Control headquarters stands in Atlanta, Aug. 6, 2022.
The Center for Disease Control headquarters stands in Atlanta, Aug. 6, 2022.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The new recommendations also put a large emphasis on improving public health communications to the American people. "The website is not easy to navigate," the document said.

To spearhead the next steps towards the agency's overhaul, Walensky intends to appoint former Obama administration Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Wakefield to oversee the shift and "help implement the vision."

The review also outlines plans to create a new executive council reporting to Walensky, which will "determine agency priorities, track progress, and align budget decisions, with a bias toward public health impact."

PHOTO: Allan Fernandez is vaccinated by Dr, David Bolour, as CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky looks on in Los Angeles, May 5, 2022.
Allan Fernandez is vaccinated by Dr, David Bolour, as CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky looks on in Los Angeles, May 5, 2022.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, FILE

"There were a lot of challenges for CDC and a lot of deficiencies that were identified during this response," said Dr. Richard Besser, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a former acting director of the CDC and a former ABC News chief medical correspondent. "Hopefully the things that are being addressed here will lead to a better response in the future."

"It is exciting though to see a couple things," Besser, who was interviewed as part of the CDC review, added. "One, the acknowledgement that there are major deficiencies -- and an action plan for moving forward. Because you can study things to death. And the things that are laid out here will lead to a more effective agency."

Walensky did not provide a timeline for the changes, but said she will provide regular updates internally.

"None of these challenges happened overnight," the CDC said in a statement. "The work ahead will take time and engagement at all levels of the organization."

ABC News' Eric M. Strauss contributed to this report.

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