A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health titan who led the eradication of smallpox asked the embattled, current CDC leader to expose the failed U.S. response to the new coronavirus, calling on him to orchestrate his own firing to protest White House interference.
Dr. William Foege, a renowned epidemiologist who served under Democratic and Republican presidents, detailed in a private letter he sent last month to CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield his alarm over how the agency has fallen in stature while the pandemic raged across America.
Foege, who has not previously been a vocal critic of the agency’s handling of the novel coronavirus, called on Redfield to openly address the White House’s meddling in the agency’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 crisis and then accept the political sacrifice that would follow. He recommended that Redfield commit to writing the administration’s failures — and his own — so there was a record that could not be dismissed.
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“You could upfront, acknowledge the tragedy of responding poorly, apologize for what has happened and your role in acquiescing,” Foege wrote to Redfield. He added that simply resigning without coming clean would be insufficient. “Don’t shy away from the fact this has been an unacceptable toll on our country. It is a slaughter and not just a political dispute.”
The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for Redfield’s response. Redfield, an HIV/AIDS expert and former military physician, lacked experience running a public health agency when Trump selected him to head the CDC in 2018.
White House spokesman Judd Deere did not respond to the contents of the letter but said in a statement that the CDC has not been compromised. “This dishonest narrative that the media and Democrats have created that politics is influencing decisions is not only false but is a danger to the American public,” Deere said.
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Foege’s Sept. 23 letter, which was obtained by USA TODAY and has not been previously reported, is a striking condemnation from a legendary public health figure who has spent decades helping prevent the spread of diseases while earning the respect of peers.
In an interview, Foege said he felt compelled to write to Redfield after the White House appointed Dr. Scott Atlas to the coronavirus task force, even though he is not an infectious disease expert.
The Washington Post and other outlets have reported that Atlas has endorsed the controversial strategy of herd immunity, although Atlas has denied doing so. Nevertheless, such reports prompted Foege, who helped successfully steer India away from such a strategy during the smallpox epidemic, to reach out to Redfield.
Now Foege sees an opportunity for Redfield to help the U.S. to turn around its response to COVID-19 if he helps implement the lessons learned from decades of fighting pandemics.
“So much of this is the deaths. It’s the deaths,” Foege told USA TODAY, noting that he did not want the letter to become public for fears that it may create a political sideshow and add to Redfield’s burden.
“Going public can only embarrass him and it doesn’t allow him to redeem himself,” Foege said, explaining his motivations. “By doing this privately, he has a chance to do the right thing.”
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Foege’s opinion carries extraordinary weight within a public health community that credits him with decades of accomplishments even beyond the eradication of smallpox. His public health credentials include helping to improve millions of lives with his work to eliminate guinea worm disease and river blindness as executive director of the Carter Center. He also helped to shape the public health efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions.
Nancy Cox, former director of the CDC’s influenza division, who worked at the agency for 37 years, told USA TODAY that Foege crystallized how many scientists and experts are feeling.
“The fact that Bill Foege went to the trouble to write this is a testament to how much he values the reputation of the CDC,” Cox said after reviewing the letter, “and how concerned he is that the reputation is being besmirched by what is happening.”
Dr. Tom Frieden, also a former CDC director, said Foege is not known for being especially partisan, having served in both the Carter and Reagan administrations. Frieden called him the “best CDC director in history.”
“Bill Foege is the Babe Ruth of public health,” said Frieden, now the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative aimed at preventing deaths from cardiovascular disease and epidemics. “Bill Foege really is in a league of his own in terms of accomplishment and is revered with reason by essentially everyone in the public health field.”
Foege’s letter to Redfield lamented how the CDC’s scientific experts have been rendered impotent during the most significant health crisis in a century while decades of experience have been ignored.
“This will go down as a colossal failure of the public health system of this country,” Foege wrote. “The biggest challenge in a century and we let the country down. The public health texts of the future will use this as a lesson on how not to handle an infectious disease pandemic.”
Foege added that the CDC’s scientific reputation was tainted under White House pressure, citing examples such as publishing official guidance not rooted in science.
“The White House has had no hesitation to blame and disgrace CDC, you and state governors,” he wrote. “They will blame you for the disaster. In six months, they have caused CDC to go from gold to tarnished brass.”
Foege also described how morale among the agency’s staff had broken down. “At the moment, they feel you accepted the White House orders without sufficient resistance,” he wrote. “You have a short window to change things.”
In his letter, Foege called on Redfield to take a strong, public stance against the White House and accept that he would lose his job as a result.
“When they fire you, this will be a multi-week story and you can hold your head high. That will take exceptional courage on your part,” Foege wrote in closing. “I can’t tell you what to do except to revisit your religious beliefs and ask yourself what is right.”
Foege, in his interview with USA TODAY, said he’d like to see the CDC reclaim its leadership role from the White House.
“Dr. Redfield could still be a savior in all of this,” he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘It is a slaughter’: Infectious disease icon asks CDC director to expose White House, orchestrate his own firing