Government Shutdowns And The CDC

Jan 21, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers don't know if they'll be going to work tomorrow because of the shutdown. Among them are half of the staff of the Department of Health and Human Services. That includes people that work at the Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. is in the middle of a deadly flu outbreak. To get a sense of what the government shutdown might mean for public health, we're joined now by Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC under President Obama. Welcome to the program.

TOM FRIEDEN: Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Frieden, you were at the CDC during the last shutdown in 2013. What happened?

FRIEDEN: It was really a terrible time. In my nearly eight years as CDC director, it was the only time I felt like I couldn't do my job of protecting Americans. We had to furlough - or temporarily lay off - 8,754 staff. And they were people who had been protecting Americans the day before and couldn't once the shutdown started.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And did that have practical implications?

FRIEDEN: Absolutely. It meant that we couldn't continue doing laboratory work. We had to scale back some of our tracking systems for disease. Samples were stacking up in our receiving centers that we would be testing for hospitals, doctors, nurses all over the country. And I think the thing that I remember most vividly is - in the midst of it, I like to do management by walking around and see how people are doing and encourage them and learn from them.

I walked through our core laboratory facility. It's usually, you know, bustling with people making up reagents and doing tests. And it was empty. There wasn't anyone there. And, you know, it was the middle of a weekday. And one of the machines was beeping. And I had no idea what it was alarming. I'm not a laboratory technician. I didn't know what the alarm was. I felt I was in some sort of a science-fiction movie...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

FRIEDEN: ...With the kind of risk of things happening that we wouldn't be able to recognize and stop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about this year's flu outbreak. It's a very bad one. What could the government shutdown mean for dealing with it?

FRIEDEN: It may mean that there's less rapid response to changes in the virus, less tracking of where it's going. Doctors in different areas would be less prepared to provide rapid treatment. And if it continues to hit hard or hits harder, more difficulty in responding and less of an understanding of what's happening. There's also an issue of what happens to the people - the doctors and nurses who are dedicated to working for the American people - who can't come to work.

It's not just that they're told, please don't come in. They're told, you cannot check email. You cannot voluntarily do your work. And the decision of who gets sent home and who doesn't is pretty random. If you happen to be on a funding stream that isn't year to year, you keep working. If your job is to take care of rats used in an experiment, you come in because they're considered government property. They can't be harmed. But if your job is to monitor human health, you may be told that you're nonessential.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So...

FRIEDEN: And that's not something that's good for someone's morale, obviously.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So it's really not clear who is essential and nonessential stuff in that circumstance.

FRIEDEN: It's a very legalistic definition, and there's some odd exceptions. There's also a very human aspect of this. There are single mothers and people caring for older parents who need each paycheck. And if the paychecks don't come, they've got real problems. It's really a lose-lose. We lose money. We lose safety. And there isn't anyone who wins from this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's former CDC director Tom Frieden. He is currently the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

FRIEDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.