CDC chief says shutdown taking its toll

The government shutdown has damaged the CDC’s ability to detect and prevent disease, the agency’s director said Monday.

Dr. Tom Frieden
Dr. Tom Frieden

Roughly 9,000 of the 13,000 employees of the Atlanta-based public health agency have been furloughed by the shutdown, which is actually a reduction in federal operations due to a budget impasse in Washington. It is going into its second week and overall has pushed hundreds of thousands of federal workers off the job.

“Our ability to find, stop and prevent health threats has been cut by two-thirds,’’ Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, told Georgia Health News on Monday.

“The biggest concern is what we don’t know,’’ Frieden said. Many staff members who do early detection of disease are not working, he said. “It’s very difficult to keep operations at full tilt,’’ he said.

The financial impact of the CDC furloughs on Georgia may be substantial. The CDC employs about 8,500 people in the state and has an annual payroll of nearly $1 billion in Georgia.

The agency and its employees feel great frustration about the situation, Frieden said. He stressed the importance of the CDC’s mission. “There’s virtually nothing we do that people don’t want us to be doing,’’ he said.

More employees can be called back to work if there’s an imminent threat to public health, he noted.

The CDC workforce has shrunk at the same time as flu season is just beginning.

Though the agency is still collecting national flu data, the information won’t be analyzed or reported until the shutdown ends. “If this flu season hits early and we don’t have the most important national voice promoting vaccination, we will see unnecessary illnesses, some of which could be severe or fatal,” John Brownstein, a Harvard Medical School epidemiologist who runs FluNearYou, a real-time flu tracking tool, told NBC News.

Frieden also pointed out that furloughs have sidelined CDC staff working on health problems such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

He said Monday that his job now “is immensely harder’’ due to the agency’s “skeletal crew.’’

He said he is worried about employee morale. Public health work “is a calling’’ for the agency staff.

Frieden, in a message to employees on the furloughs, said, “CDC staff and their families affected by this closure are on my mind every day, and I wish I could tell each one individually how valuable they are. Practical challenges, derailed work projects, and not being able to do our jobs affect every one of us.”

Over the weekend, the U.S. House voted unanimously to award back pay to federal employees once the shutdown ends. “That sends a very strong signal,’’ Frieden said.

But contract employees probably would not receive that pay, he added.