5 former CDC directors on how the US is handling the pandemic

ABC News’ Linsey Davis speaks to five former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on what went wrong in the pandemic response, and what should happen next.
19:15 | 08/07/20

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Transcript for 5 former CDC directors on how the US is handling the pandemic
It is now been more than six months since the pandemic hit American shores with the first cope with cases of -- nineteen reported in the US so. We want to take a step back and examine how we got here through a rare joint conversation with. Some of the top health professionals in the country five people who have run the CDC in the past three decades. Under both Republican and democratic administrations. This Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in Atlanta is the nation's preeminent health protection agency. Its mission statement to work 24/7 to protect America from health safety and security threats both foreign and in the US. With an expanse of team of scientists and medical experts the CBC has helped the nation prepare for and whether public health crises for decades. But the novel corona virus pandemic has presented a challenge unlike any the US has recently faced. And critics say the CDC has failed to meet the moment. With its guidelines and recommendations often sidelined by the child administration's push to reopen the country as the pandemic grew. So what is the CDC gotten right what could have been done better and has politics taken over science in the public health response. Four former heads of the CDC argue just that point in a recent op Ed in the Washington Post headlined we ran the CDC. No president ever politicize it science the way trump passed they wrote public health experts face two opponents Kobe nineteen. But also political leaders and others attempting to undermine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Repeated efforts to subvert sound political health guidelines introduce chaos and uncertainty. While unnecessarily. Putting lives at risk. So tonight we're joined by five former heads of the CDC doctor David Satcher CDC director and surgeon general in the Clinton administration as the country faces HIV aids epidemic. She's the author of the new book my quest for health equity. Doctor Jeffrey Copeland who served as CDC director in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administration's. Including the 2001 anthrax scare and is now being. Doctor Julie Herbert and also served as CDC director in the Bush Administration responding to the bird flu threat and increased efforts to combat HIV globally. She's now an executive VP and chief patient officer at Merck part of the warp speed program to produce a company nineteen vaccine. Doctor Richard vasser served as acting CDC director in 2009 during the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic. Worked here at ABC news's chief health and medical editor and now serves as president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The doctor Tom Frieden served as CDC director throughout the Obama administration including the fight against the Ebola and Zeke outbreaks he's now CEO of resolve to save lives. Thank you all so much for joining us tonight we look forward to your insights and our goal is to essentially examine what went wrong where things stands. And what comes next so just for starters just wanna get everybody to weigh in on how we got to this moment. As you know the US now has the highest number of counted nineteen deaths in the world. In your opinion what's the single biggest factor that led to this and doctor sexual assault we'll start with you. Linked to a single biggest factor relates to leaders showed a humble coasts. When we have trouble prioritizing. The science. And taken advantage dog problem but a strained. Scientists are in the world and certain zones wrong. Probably killed epidemiology and several Somalia is true courage and a civilian brew various people. Irritated certainly we need to apply what we know. We need to see truth facts of the American public tends to use those truths smoother scientific evidence to control this disease. I think that the class of of messages. When you don't see the political leadership supporting public health and end. Letting people know that everything will be guided by the best public health science. You mean you lose track. Trusting confidence. You know we need to hear this science and the scientific experts and we need to have the confidence that we're being land. Based on what is best for the public's health. And not what's best or politics. Absolutely it's all about leadership and organized response that outlines priorities as doctor satcher said. It communicates effectively a star with her ring investors said it. Ball or the sciences doctor Copeland said gives us the data so were all on the same page. And now I'd like to do lightning round here again with an essentially just one word or phrase as far as. What your most worried about in this moment now that we are here and doctor Frieden onto the back to you. I worry about getting too used to the horrible results we're getting. We are owned global lacquered and we need to change our pro treat our game and get ahead of the bar. This initial era and I'm worried about immunity we need a vaccine and we needed it fast. I think longer term my biggest fear is that we won't learn our lesson. And that we want changed our minds said about how important health security really he has to our national security. I worry about resignation then then that people will be resigned to. What we've seen in terms of response in this country so far in the trajectory of disease what what happens this fall. It depends on what we do now. To remove. Partisan politics. From or ineffective response is this this. Grouping of folks who believe in our mitigation efforts vs those that its own. I think along political lines makes no sense scientifically. The voters who care less. We're among our worry is Newsweek come into this season. When we simply pretty close to having a vaccine. Regardless some are there shortages were Carlson and our failure to appropriately communicate and in a way and I'm just back to leaders who. Doctor restaurant cooked the current head of the CDC at a press briefing at the white house on January 31. He said this is a serious health situation in China but I want to emphasize that the risks in the American public is well. And throughout January and February the American people were given a sense by both the CDC and the trump administration that this was under control where was the disconnect. Well you know early in in public health crisis. What you don't know far outstrips what he what you do no information. Very quickly started to come in that this would be a threat. And as soon as CDC. Stated that CDC was sidelined him was no longer allowed to do the briefings but but if there's been an ongoing dialogue in conversation with our public health leaders. He would it would be part of that journey. Doctor treating it looked like he minded an there if you go back to the record. On January 26. Nancy mess that he said we have to behave as if this is a pandemic. So it was already clear to the experts at CDC on February 25 she said disruption to everyday life may be severe absolutely. Correct doctor governing you recently wrote a record. Did was titled ending the cycle of crisis and complacency in US global health security. And I just want to read a portion for a moment when health crises strike an American people grow alarmed the US government springs into action and all too often when the crisis fades and fearsome signs. Urgency morphs into complacency investments dry up attention shifts and a false sense of security takes hold. Talk about that challenge of keeping the government in prep mode instead of being so reactionary. We've all Brookline street this cycle. The crisis. Is reactive investments. They incredible focus and attention for a short period of time. And then in the absence of the sustained by decision support for really strengthening our public health system at the state and local level that cycle has gone on for a long time. And it I really do hope that finally it's gotten so bad that we we don't reinvent how we think about our health security in the context of our national security. And doctor treating you were of course the CDC director during Obama administration when a pandemic response all this within the National Security Council was created to prepare for the next potential disease outbreak the trump administration disbanded that office. Do it we would still be in the same place today if that office were to still be operational. Well there's no question that is drawing back not just from the national. Security Council from the World Health Organization from our engagement with countries all around the world including China. But didn't leave us open to a microbial sneak attack we can't stick our head in the sand we can't take our marbles and go home. And even the World Health Organization shot things and that it's not gonna come back to haunt us and that's what we're seeing right. Now a doctor Frieden who are part of that joint op Ed that we mentioned earlier. How unprecedented is it to have the president of the United States and ray nearly pushing back on the science in his own medical experts. And also how dangerous is it. I can't think of any precedent for this it's one thing if the president were decided for example no we're not going to recommend maps. It would be wrong but you can make that decision but it's quite another thing at the same press conference where the CDC says everyone should Wear masks for the president say up. I don't Wear one. That is chaotic leadership and that's led to far too much partisanship confusion. And a lot of spread of the virus there is no enemy here are other than the virus for all in it together. If you if you think about where we are right now in the conversations going on about. Reopening schools if you have politicians saying that CDC guidance is a B is a barrier to getting children back into school. In the instead of the road map for doing it safely. And the whole system breaks down. And here we've been talking about leadership by just wanna go through a few comments of the president has said I think it's under control they are dying that's true. And if you had it is what it is. Still I think we're doing very well. We got hit. Hit by a virus and we've done a great job of that but we don't get the credit. Does anyone here on this panel agree with those statements made by the president of the United States. It's so we don't we we don't agree with it. It's every one of those students. Drives away our opportunity to improve our RRR mitigation efforts. That captures it and it causes stunned confusion and everyone's mind what's the right thing. And so AP. Absolutely need in ten is an excellent academics are any public dollars student. Is to ensure that the truth is named Stratton evil he at stone. Something needs sugar coating Murray and this is something that seems. Bad news and people will be upset. The truth is too early council once you lose that edged Ben Ben here behind not just the buyers. Your behind public opinion. And people's behavior. The only thing I would agree with there is that it is unbelievable. It's unbelievable. That six months into the and then back. It's not clear who's in charge federally there's no plan. There's no common data that we're looking to see what's happening with the virus and what's happening with our response. The idea that we're doing all that we can. When when we are the wealthiest nation on the planet and we see countries all around the globe that have been able to take measures to get this. Under control in ways that we haven't even come close to the idea that we should be. Complacent and satisfied with this is this current response and that this is the way forward. Until there is a vaccine or until there's been enough disease transmission. That that there appeared then it starts to fade away. That is absolutely unacceptable. Doctor hurting if you once again the head of the CDC a you're having a one on one conversation. With president trumpet in this moment. What would be the one saying that you feel needs to be done differently immediately. It's communication and what I would love to be able to do history winded tape. Because we do know some things for sure about this virus we know it's incredibly transmissible and we know that most people are still susceptible. We also know that three sees its crowding its confinement and its contact. If we avoid those three things we have a really good chance of saving lives and slowing down the spread. As many innocent now said it isn't rocket science. Doctor treating as a CDC effectively been muzzled to some extent it has a CDC done enough to inform the country the most pertinent information that we need to know. Americans are voting with their clicks that are and one point six. Billion clicks on the CDC website and there's still tremendous amount of accurate timely useful information recommendations there. The more we learn the more we know the better we can control it. Doctor satcher your new book and it's coming on September addresses the decades long racial inequities in health care and the virus is expose those even more. What needs to be done at this point to prioritize going forward so that minority communities don't have to face more dire outcomes. News alone do stone Sharon. Here's an ardent liberal mind to problems news we're innocent when the elsewhere does not sustained. Ultimately though some big problems that we face in this country it is when you lose your business consistent BO Tribune's rob sustained. Com and we premise I don't see and still permeated in terms of disparate zoos and held. No it in America should have to choose between putting food on the table and paying rent. Or we're doing things protect themselves their family and there their community and for too many people in America in in a high proportion of both black and and ground. And native Americans. And so in the short run we need to make sure that those protections are there that people are being come in there in the in their. Pockets there were providing protections for essential workers so that essential workers are not expendable workers. In the longer term everyone in America has and should have the right to to affordable comprehensive. Health insurance and to just sick leave and family medical leave and unemployment insurance. You would these are things that are not universally available and the disproportionately. Impacts people of color. A doctor governing how little look ahead to the prospects of the vaccine and doctor found she and others have said that they believe that we can safely produce a vaccine by the end of the year or early 20/20 one Condace we've done that quickly. We all pray for us safe vaccine as quickly as possible that will truly help us end this pandemic. And I hope that we can go as fast as some people seem to think we can. Some that we can't take any safety shortcuts. This is one of those places where trust in the leadership in the communication about what's actually going on is especially important. We don't want the vaccine as soon as possible. But there are serious literary exceeds error it sometimes six longer than we will decide. Those who are sitting watching this insane. I don't worry about it too much we get the vaccine a couple of months since they chairman and so I am I don't have to work mess I don't have to. Distance myself from others that are students not go to allow our assurance. Tell used to. That's a real problem. Kind of a jump ball here just wanna get everybody to until weigh in on the idea of if you are confident that we're going to be able to recover from this. And also what's your best piece of advice. Lesson I guess for Americans going forward. Doctor satcher we'll start with you. They've termed this pandemic is an outstanding discovery and appropriately I agree that. It's going to be who oppose the problem is going to be well elsewhere while insurance arms corporate. Parenting. Program to reward to Joseph and want to get a vaccine. And in reality bureau Broussard to bills so many of people who don't trust exceeds. Somebody needs to call a cinch and sewer we have to do to go. And a slew problem leaders show. To and always there's no substitute. Its interim the president. Doctor Carl when can we recover. Oh in lower you cover. You look at 19:18. Am disaster that struck them down with. Less adequate science. Less true less than a nation. Triumph soon and moved ahead and spend. They're continues to improve everyone's so we're we think there's every reason vs evil soul. This week just keep calling for the same direction. We would make. Considerable progress quickly. I think that the the question that we have to ask is. What will that recovery looks like and who's going to bear the brunt of this going forward. If you look you who's been bearing the brunt of this pandemic disproportionately so far. It is communities of color and as we go forward we think about recovery from a health standpoint recovery from an economic standpoint. I'm different individuals different communities are gaming needs different resources and it's gonna say a lot about us as a nation whether we step up to this challenge. And remove many of the structural barriers. Health. Then that people in the in this country face. We'll recovered but the question is at what price and and how Long Will it take. Well are maintaining our physical distance we need to come together as communities as health leaders as a nation's. I'm around the world to really say we've got to work collaborative Lee. In a committed mannered to. Always stick together on the things that we know will help slow down the spread of this virus that's a tall order in this very divided world. But it's about the pandemic it's not about politics and we really need to make that message number one. The U virus is here to stay for awhile vaccine or not and it's going to bring significant. Changes to how we live how we learn how we work. But the one thing I hope we'll get out of this that's positive is to make sure that we are never again this under prepared and we have to. Focus on strengthening the system at the federal level state level since he koehlke level and the global level. That's how we can all be safer. We'll see you lions doctors so I thank you so much for your time it really invaluable insight we really appreciate it.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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