In the early days of Covid, staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to provide Americans with guidance on how to maintain some semblance of normalcy during a once-in-a-century pandemic that had upended daily life.
A recommendation? Play basketball with your friends, online.
There was a big problem: the country’s top public health professionals did not consult with their own colleagues who would be responsible for communicating this advice to the public.
“We have to sit down at the table first, so we can raise our hand and say, ‘Hey guys, I’m sorry, but playing basketball virtually with your friends is probably not a good recommendation,'” a CDC staffer said. NBC News before adding: “That’s pretty stupid.”
Another member of staff echoed the frustration. “There were a number of people within the agency who were at times stumped as to whether what we were recommending was really practical.”
Communication lapses like that, along with much larger errors, would continue throughout the pandemic, deeply tarnishing the agency, long considered the gold standard of public health institutions. The blunders have left career scientists and other longtime employees worried that wounds may not heal.
It all culminated in what would become a series of haunting defining moments for CDC employees who say the agency couldn’t move fast enough to serve the public with science strong enough to meet its own expectations.
This account is based on interviews with seven CDC employees who spoke to NBC News about their experiences during the pandemic on condition of anonymity to discuss the issues freely. All but one have been with the agency for at least 14 years, and three are near or past their third decade of service.
While some employees say they are optimistic the agency can improve its public health responses, mistakes made during the Covid response still haunt those who have dedicated their lives to public health.
“When people ask, ‘where do you work?’ He used to say that he ‘works at CDC’ with pride,” said a staff member. “Now I only tell people that I work in public health and not exactly where I work, because it will turn into a discussion about our failures.”
“People’s lives were changing based on our decisions,” said a senior scientist at the agency. “The fear, the anxiety, the stress…” the person said, quietly. “If only we could have stopped time.”
“There will be headlines praising it and headlines criticizing it,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC News. “It was going to be difficult for the agency however it was shaken. I can tell you numerous times that I’ve had these big decisions…many nights I’ve lost sleep.”
Six of the CDC employees who spoke to NBC News were either interviewed or heavily involved in a highly publicized review of the agency this year. The review was requested by Walensky and led by Jim Macrae, a former Department of Health and Human Services official.
“In our big time, our performance reliably fell short of expectations,” Walensky said in a statement in August, when the review was completed. macrae report about the agency’s pandemic responsepublished on September 1, echoed the need for the CDC to move faster and more reliably.
Not all employees were happy with the proposed changes. “I have certainly spoken to staff who are very distressed and feel very concerned,” said a senior staff member.
Another was more forceful: “It’s going to piss off a lot of people, and people are going to leave.”
But others said they were relieved to see their frustrations outlined in Macrae’s final report, and ultimately all agreed the agency needs to make drastic changes before the next public health emergency.