We did, as reported in this space last week, make a transition to a new publishing platform. It did require more of some of us than others.

I should confess that of all of those who participated in the move to the new system, I was the most resistant to change. I’ve raised hanging back to an art form.

This has nothing to do with being older than most of my colleagues, but the fact that since emerging from the womb I have found most everything just fine and usually see no reason for change.

But our growth in content and readers left us with no choice.

So change we did. And it came during a time when food safety events were popping. We made the change with a Listeria outbreak from cheese imported from Italy, the massive E. coli recall of beef from Canada, and the Salmonella Thompson outbreak involving smoked salmon associated with a Dutch company that’s made hundreds of people ill both in the Netherlands and the U.S.

Anyway, it took a lot of concentration on everybody’s part and it got me to thinking about others who may be hitting their own capacity walls and might be finding themselves doing too much multitasking.

Specifically, it got me to thinking about how they are doing down at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Has anybody else noticed they’ve had a lot on their plates the last few months?

CDC has to deal with all of these food-related outbreaks while also handling Hantavirus, Meningitis, and West Nile Virus, which together have killed 173 this year.

I’ve been one whose been quick to be critical of CDC, especially for their lack of basic transparency as when the Atlanta-based agency sometimes declines to even say who the players are in an outbreak as they did earlier this year in trying to keep Taco Bell’s name out of the public report.

But even I have to acknowledge now that CDC more than has its hands full. Consider these active outbreaks it is now involved in:

U.S.-Based Outbreaks:

• Meningitis – Multistate outbreak
, First announced October 2012

• Peanut Butter – Salmonella Bredeney
, First announced September 2012

• Ricotta Salata Cheese – Listeriosis,
First announced September 2012

• Hedgehogs – Human Salmonella Typhimurium Infections, 
First announced September 2012

• Mangoes – Salmonella Braenderup
, First announced August 2012

• Yosemite National Park – Hantavirus
, First announced August 2012

• Cantaloupes – Salmonella Typhimurium Infections, 
First announced August 2012

• 2012 West Nile Virus

• Pertussis (Whooping Cough) in Washington, 
First announced April 2012

• Small Turtles – Human Salmonella Infections
, First announced March 2012

Outbreaks Affecting International Travelers:

• Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo
, First announced August 2012

• Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Outbreak in Uganda
, First announced July 2012

Each of these outbreaks as an isolated event could be routine, and except for those who are directly impacted not something a lot of people would notice. However, taken together, CDC is managing what must be an historic amount of major outbreaks.

CDC presumably has different personnel assigned to handle different types of outbreaks. But what’s the capacity of the agency and its labs to handle multiple lines of outbreaks all at once?

We seem to have noticed that reports and updates for food borne illness outbreaks go faster there are not so many non-food outbreaks drawing on the the agency’s resources.

For example, as I write this, we have not had an update on the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak involving Mexico mangoes since mid-September. But when CDC is working on Ebola in Africa and probably SARS in the Middle East should we cut them some slack?

The fact is we probably do not. We were not appreciative enough for Friday’s update on the peanut butter outbreak because we also want to see an update on the Mexican mangoes outbreak, which has gone without an update for almost three weeks.

The military for years made the case that it had to have the capacity to fight a war on two fronts, or two entirely different wars. I am not sure where all that’s at today, but it raises a good question for CDC. What is its capacity for handling multiple outbreaks?

Right now, the agency has a lot of balls in the air with apparent success. None of these outbreaks large enough to have captured or held the attention (or fear) of the American public. But what if they did? How close to capacity is CDC in operations right now?

Maybe CDC is great at multitasking and doing a lot of unexpected tasks all at once. But maybe they are not. Now would be a good time to benchmark how CDC is doing and make the necessary adjustments before those labs down in Atlanta are involved in something that scares the bejesus out of us.

  • Scott

    Dan, thank you for your newsletter and reflections on the workload at CDC. I often slip into the attitude that they are just another government agency that has succumb to the greed and corrupt influence of big multinational corporations. Your editorial helped me realize there are people there working very complex, dangerous, and politically touchy issues
    Thanks for all you do.

  • Eliavaa

    The CDC has had massive budget cuts, just like everyone else in Government. The common Congressional saying that we should all “do more with less” is a myth; no one does more with less. We do less with less. Take the West Nile outbreak- start asking how many counties in Texas and other states with high WNV cases cut out their mosqueto control programs due to budget cuts and you’ll start to find out how we can’t do more with less in Government. People want a smaller government, but there are severe consequences to this that we are all just now beginning to notice.