Ex-CDC Boss Says 'There Are Things That Are Clearly Missing' From White House Reopening Guidelines

The physician who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu" epidemic said on Friday the White House's guidelines for when and how governors can begin to relax the social distancing measures meant to "flatten the curve" of new COVID-19 infections are missing a number of things required to prevent new flare-ups.

Dr. Richard Besser, who led the CDC and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry over the first six months of the Obama administration, said in an interview with Newsweek that the guidelines unveiled by the White House on Thursday have significant gaps that could render them an ineffective metric for whether states truly have COVID-19 under control.

"There are things in there that are very encouraging in terms of wanting to see downward trends in diseases in excess hospital capacity, but there are things that are clearly missing in there in terms of the need to have widespread testing capability available, the importance of contact tracing the importance of providing resources to individuals, to allow them to isolate or to quarantine," said Besser, who is now President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Such an endeavor "requires a lot of resources from the federal government," he continued, adding later that he was "hopeful that our elected officials will do the right thing and provide resources so that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to protect their health."

Dr. Richard Besser
Dr. Richard Besser, shown here in a file photo from 2009, led the CDC through the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

Besser explained that before states can truly begin to open their economies back up, they need to have resources in place to perform the "bread and butter" contact tracing which public health departments and shoe-leather epidemiology that the nation's public health departments have long excelled at.

"It's what's done for tuberculosis, it's what's been done for sexually transmitted disease outbreaks," he said. "[Trace contacts] and then quarantine, meaning separate from society, those people who've been exposed to people who who potentially could have gotten sick."

The problem, Besser said, is that public health departments don't have the resources or personnel they once did.

"Our public health system, over the past couple decades, has seen major decreases in funding and major losses in personnel. And so you're going to have to rebuild that," he said. "You want to train people so they know how to do contact tracing, and can ensure that as new cases occur, they're being detected, they're being isolated, contact tracing is taking place, and people who have been in contact or being being quarantined."

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of the COVID-19 virus across the world as of April 17.

coronavirus, map, covid-19, countries, world
A graphic provided by Statista shows the global spread of the new coronavirus as of early April 17. More than 2.2. million people have been afflicted, over 565,000 of whom have recovered and over 148,000 of whom have died. Statista