CDC Director: U.S. Less Safe After Shutdown

Oct 3, 2013

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, speaking at the Aspen Institute in July 2013.
Credit Aspen Institute

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden says the country is less safe than it was prior to the partial federal government shutdown. 

“There are more blind spots out there,” Frieden says. “There are more things that may be happening that we may not find out about, may not be able to stop or stop quickly, and may not be able to prevent.”

More than two-thirds of the CDC’s 13,000 staff members are furloughed as a result of the partial federal government shutdown – that’s about 8,700 employees worldwide, about 6,000 of which are in the Atlanta headquarters. He says that pause in work is causing potentially permanent damage to research and crippling the center's ability to track food-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases.

“If an experiment was set up in the lab, a project was started, it may be that it could be stopped and resumed, but it may also be that there’s real damage to that,” Frieden says.

Frieden says normally, the CDC has eight scientists tracking and examining food-borne illnesses. Post-shutdown, there’s only one. Some research and reference labs have gone from a staff of 80 to 2, and staff at the 20 quarantine stations dotted along the country’s borders and ports has been reduced by 85 percent. The center’s hospital-acquired infections phone line – which Frieden says receives about 100 calls a day – has also been shuttered.

A sign posted on the entrance to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells employees and visitors the building is, with the exception of some staff, closed.
Credit Michell Eloy

“We don’t have the systems up. We don’t have early warning systems as robust as they should be or could be,” Frieden says.

Frieden says the CDC’s ability to map and track the upcoming flu season will also be hampered by the shutdown.  

“We’re not tracking it as intensely as we would otherwise,” Frieden says.  “We’re not able to promote vaccinations as effectively as we would otherwise; we’re not able to address outbreaks and clusters as they occur and do the lab work that we would do.”

Frieden says CDC is functioning on a skeleton crew to maintain some labs and emergency operations, though some programs – like AIDS research and prevention – are continuing because they’re not dependent on annual funding. Those programs that deal with “imminent threats,” like Ebola, smallpox and the plague, are still up and running.

He says other work – like cancer, diabetes and stroke prevention research – is on hold for now.