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Former CDC Director On Trump Administration's Order For Hospitals To Bypass CDC

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Before today, hospitals across the country had to report their COVID-19 statistics to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But today a new directive from the Trump administration requires hospitals to bypass the CDC and send that information directly to the Department of Health and Human Services. It's a move that concerns some health experts. One of them is Dr. Richard Besser. He's a former acting director of the CDC during the Obama administration, and he's now president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We should note the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is an underwriter for NPR. Dr. Richard Besser joins us via Skype.

Welcome.

RICHARD BESSER: Thanks, Ailsa, great to be here.

CHANG: So what specifically concerns you about this move by the Trump administration?

BESSER: Well, you know, there have been so many episodes during this response to COVID where CDC has not been playing their traditional role, where they haven't been speaking to the public. They haven't been assuming that role as the nation's leader and the world's leader in response to a pandemic. This strikes me as another sign of that. You know, the CDC is the nation's public health agency. And they need to be receiving data like this from hospitals to understand how the pandemic is progressing across the country, how the number of cases in hospitals may relate to actions that are being taken or not being taken in states and cities, and to provide direction to the nation. You know, the CDC works directly with state and local public health departments to provide that guidance. And I worry about politics being injected into this response.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you to step back for a moment. I mean, why is sending this kind of information to the CDC specifically, as opposed to other public health agencies in the government, why is that - why should it be part of the normal process when you're monitoring an outbreak?

BESSER: Well, yeah. I mean, CDC needs to have what you would call situational awareness. So what is going on in different parts of the country? They're not the only part of government that needs that information...

CHANG: Right.

BESSER: ...Because there are other aspects of government that are responsible for getting ventilators and equipment. But CDC is the place where that information tends to flow or should flow. And it needs to be - flow in a very transparent way, so that the information that CDC gets from hospitals, from states is available for all to see and to react to. We've been calling on CDC to collect additional information so that you can break down data by race and ethnicity and really see what's happening in all parts of the country to all different populations. A move of sending this to Washington directly strikes of politics.

CHANG: Well, let me push back just a little bit. Michael Caputo - the assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS - he says this change was needed because the old way was just too slow. And the current CDC director, Robert Redfield, agrees with him. He says this new system will streamline data collection and that the CDC will still have access to all of this data. So what do you think? Could this change actually be helpful in some ways?

BESSER: Well, you know, I hope that's the case - that it streamlines things. You know, I was at CDC for 13 years and led the emergency response for four of those years. And there was a - there were always struggles - between CDC based in Atlanta and other aspects of the Department of Health Human Services based in Washington - over where information should flow. One of the nice things about CDC being in Atlanta is that it's away from a lot of the political influence of Washington. And I worry that having this information coming directly to HHS may affect some of the transparency around that and the access to that information. The transparency is critical to an informed response.

CHANG: OK. Well, we only have about 40 seconds left. But let me ask you, based on your experience, what is one thing you would like the CDC to do at this point to get a better hold of this pandemic?

BESSER: Well, you know, what I'd like to see is CDC out front every day talking to the public through the press so that we can understand what they're learning from things around this country and around the globe. And so we can ensure that people are taking action to protect their health, the health of their families and communities. And it stems from trust, and that trust comes through that contact.

CHANG: Dr. Richard Besser is a former acting director of the CDC during the Obama administration.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

BESSER: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.