Your faithful scribes here at Food Safety News deal daily with many federal and state food safety agencies. How we are able to interact with these organizations is a big factor in how effective we are in keeping you up to date on food safety.
Among these agencies, none is more important than the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. When a man traveling from West Africa this past week arrived in Texas and was diagnosed with Ebola, CDC instantly became America’s No. 1 news source.
And it’s left me wondering how this is going to come out. Oh, I’m not worried about Ebola in North America. CDC really does have the “pros from Dover” to oversee a state and local public health system that will do its job. What I am looking for is whether CDC will change any of its protocols concerning how it handles the media as a result of “the first case of the Ebola virus on U.S. soil.”
Speaking only for myself here, dealing with CDC has always been a bit of a dichotomy. Too often, CDC is slow to respond to specific inquiries. At the same time, when you do get in contact with top CDC people, it does feel like you are talking to the “best of the best.”
Still, as our faithful readers know, we have from time to time had our own knock-down, drag-out fights with CDC, mostly over their apprehension about making certain facts public that are critical details in their reports. Most infamous of these was CDC’s identification of the Taco Bell chain only as “Restaurant A” in an outbreak report a couple years back. Food Safety News searched around, found the name in a state document, and reported it.
I’ve come to suspect that CDC’s leadership has the false notion that it has a franchise on all information under its control. When it declined to provide not only the flights, but even the routes, which Thomas Eric Duncan took from Liberia to Dallas, I knew it would be only a matter of hours before reporters tracked all that down, complete with close-up pictures of a sweating Duncan waiting for his connecting plane at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. It was another victory over CDC trying to hide something. (To be fair, it’s always too hot or too cold in the Dulles terminals, so the temperature alone might have been the reason for Duncan’s discomfort.)
I am also fairly confident that the media-relations people at CDC try to persuade their bosses not to continue to erode their credibility on the big things by not being responsive on the little stuff. The media are just doing their job in asking the very predictable questions of who, what, when, where and why. Going on live television and either not having those answers or refusing to give them up amounts to stupidity, no matter how many degrees are held by whoever is at the microphone.
That said, the media also understand protections on patient privacy and readily accept promises that information will be forthcoming. Americans are an ideologically split lot, but they are mainly united in their distrust of government. According to this recent CNN Poll, “just 13 percent of Americans say the government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time ….”
If CDC is to build its own credibility during the Ebola crisis, it needs to make adjustments now. And those adjustments need to be across the board, not just for Ebola. The exotic, movie-script-tested Ebola scare is getting all the attention now, but many are growing concerned about other events like the Enterovirus D68 outbreak that CDC says involves 514 confirmed cases in 43 states as of Oct. 2.
This weekend came a report by a doctor at Lutheran Hospital in suburban Denver that two adults have died from severe respiratory illnesses that may or may not have involved D68. Dr. Phil Emrie, a critical care pulmonologist, does believe adults are being infected with D68. Since Aug. 18, Denver’s Children’s Hospital has treated about 4,000 kids for respiratory illnesses and about 400 were admitted.
While most only suffer mild cold symptoms, thousands of children have been affected by the D68 outbreak. In Denver, 10 children developed spinal cord infections called myelitis. Dr. Emrie says more adults with no history of breathing problems, even in Denver’s thin air, are coming down with respiratory and asthma-like conditions.
Where did D68 come from? Many on talk radio and social media suspect the source was Honduras and El Salvador, the two countries that sent the last human wave over our Southern border without the kind of “Ellis Island” medical checks that were once used to keep dangerous diseases out of the country.
It’s one of those explanations that probably can never be proven or disproved, but it’s part of the opinion environment that CDC must navigate.
Finally, the agency has had problems of its own that are likely to get new and renewed attention in the hot lights of the Ebola coverage. The most recent is the report that President Obama took an elevator ride at CDC with one of its rented guards, who just happened to have a felony record and a gun.
That was a Secret Service story, but this week I would not be surprised if media representatives start asking why shoddy security is occurring at CDC, which houses a Biosecurity Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory over two buildings that contain some of the most dangerous agents on the planet. And still fresh is the anthrax exposure incident that put CDC’s own personnel at risk on its Roybal Campus in Atlanta. That brought promises in July of improved laboratory safety and at least a temporary end to moving agents from CDC’s BSL-3 lab to its BSL-4 lab. None of this probably got the attention it deserved at the time.
This is the background against which CDC is going to be tested in the days ahead. We can only hope it takes the advice of those internally who argue for doing and saying those things that build the agency’s credibility. It’s not in anybody’s interest to have CDC end up being the butt of late-night jokes.© Food Safety News