Years after the COVID-19 pandemic started, is the US prepared for the next pandemic?
No, according to the outgoing director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
“Decades of underinvestment in public health rendered the United States ill prepared for a global pandemic,” Walensky, 54, wrote Tuesday in a New York Times opinion essay.
“Some estimates suggest we are 80,000 public health workers short across the United States to meet basic public health needs,” she added.
“National laboratories lack both state-of-the-art equipment and skilled bench scientists to work them.”
In addition to glaring staff shortages, Walensky also lamented how the US public health care system still relies on outdated, 1980s-era technology.
“To this day some of our public health data systems are reliant on old fax machines,” she wrote.
In 2020, for example, the Austin Public Health department in Texas received more than 1,000 faxes a day detailing coronavirus test results during the height of the pandemic.
The information on those faxes had to be entered manually into the department’s database before people could receive their test results, according to a CBS News report.
“That’s like a third-world technology. Most young people don’t even know what a fax machine is anymore,” said Travis County (Texas) Commissioner Brigid Shea. “It is so crude I am horrified to hear this.”
Austin is hardly the only place struggling with an outmoded public health system: In Washington state, 25 National Guardsmen were tasked with manually entering COVID-19 data into computer systems.
The need for better preparation is inevitable, Walensky warned: “The question is not if there will be another public health threat, but when.”
“The CDC needs public and congressional support if it is going to be prepared to protect you from future threats.”
Several other public health officials have called for additional preparation before another pandemic hits.
“When the next pandemic comes knocking — and it will — we must be ready to answer decisively, collectively and equitably,” said World Health Organization director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The threat of another [coronavirus] variant emerging that causes new surges of disease and death remains,” Dr. Tedros said. “And the threat of another pathogen emerging with even deadlier potential remains.”
Those threats include a contagious illness with the chilling name “Disease X.”
The term Disease X is used by the WHO as a placeholder to describe a disease that’s unknown to medical science as a cause of human infections.
“This isn’t the stuff of science fiction,” Dr. Richard Hatchett of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations told the Telegraph. “This is a scenario we have to prepare for.”
It’s unclear, even after the COVID-19 emergency has ended, that the CDC has data-reporting protocols in place to address another pandemic.
“We have 3,000 jurisdictions that send us data. Sometimes it’s standardized, sometimes it’s not,” Walensky said in a recent TIME interview.
“Sometimes it comes by fax, sometimes by email, sometimes by web. And we cannot compel that data —those data to come to us voluntarily,” she added.
Despite the many challenges still facing the CDC, Walensky believes she leaves the agency better than she found it.
“Having tackled and gotten us through the darkest days of COVID-19, which is really what I came in to do,” now is a good time to step down, she said — her tenure ends Friday.