ProPublica obtained hundreds of pages of documents that it said painted a picture of chaos at the country’s leading national public health agency that slowed the early response to the deadly illness.
On Feb. 13, the CDC sent out an email with what the writer described as an “URGENT” appeal for assistance as the agency was struggling to keep track of people suspected of being infected, the nonprofit news outlet reported.
“Help needed urgently,” the missive said amid “an ongoing issue” with organizing — and at times even misplacing — material sent by local agencies about Americans believed to be infected.
In a bid to correct the botched efforts, the CDC listed job postings for candidates who could track down the missing paperwork, according to ProPublica, which obtained the trove of documents between federal and state officials through a records request in Nevada.
By the time the jobs posting went out, there were already 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US — two weeks before the first case of community transmission was reported in California.
In a sign of the CDC’s state of confusion, ProPublica cited documents that show the agency informed Nevada about 80 possible coronavirus patients to monitor — though four of them lived in New York, not Nevada.
When a state epidemiologist informed the CDC about the blunder, it redirected the errant reports to the Empire State, according to the documents.
In another instance, a Nevada health official asked the CDC about congressional funding to fight the disease.
“There seems to be a communications blackout on this end,” wrote the program manager, who wondered how the money would be allocated.
A CDC staffer apologized for the lack of information.
“Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to your questions,” the staffer wrote. “We are hearing all of the rumor mills as well.”
“Thank you,” the Nevada official replied. “It’s good to be confused together.”
During February, the CDC also imposed a strict limit on who should be tested for the illness — a strategy that epidemiologists have assailed as limiting the ability to track its spread.
The CDC told state officials on Feb. 19 that those to be tested had to have had close contact with someone confirmed to be infected, or to have traveled from China and then had simultaneous respiratory symptoms and a fever.
But in January, the agency had informed the states that “fever may not be present in some patients,” according to a document obtained by ProPublica.
In a statement to the news site, the CDC said health professionals could always use their judgment to decide who should be tested.
“CDC never declined a request for testing that came from a state or local health department,” the agency said.
The CDC also instructed states to use the web platform DCIPHER to report potential and confirmed cases – but it wasn’t until the following week that it scheduled a training on how to use the platform, documents show.
ProPublica also described the CDC’s bumpy efforts to screen passengers arriving from China at the Los Angeles International Airport using a buggy questionnaire.
Among the glitches was a drop-down menu that auto-populated with “United Kingdom” instead of “United States,” forcing travelers to type “United States of America.”
On Feb. 29, a CDC officer at the LA airport also sent an email to her colleagues, saying: “In case this comes up again, we are not screening private flights. These would be flights that land at LAX but don’t arrive into the regular terminal … mainly for rich people.”
But she changed her tune a couple of hours later, writing: “And, maybe just kidding.”
The CDC told ProPublica that it focused on vetting the largest segment possible of high-risk fliers arriving from places like the Chinese epicenter city of Wuhan.
The CDC chief, Dr. Robert Redfield, also sounded confident in his communications with others in the agency, ProPublica reported.
In a message he sent on Jan. 28, when the CDC had confirmed five cases of the coronavirus, he acknowledged the coronavirus posed “a very serious public health threat.”
But he the assured them “the virus is not spreading in the U.S. at this time,” though that may not have been true, according to the report.
Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist Seattle, has said he believed the virus could have begun circulating in Washington state immediately after a traveler arrived in mid-January.
The CDC told ProPublica that Redfield’s comments were based on the data available at the time.
“At no time, did he underestimate the potential for COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic,” the agency said. “He stated consistently that more cases, including person to person spread, were likely.”