In the early days of Covid, staffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sought to give Americans guidance about maintaining some semblance of normalcy during a once-in-a-century pandemic that had upended daily life.
One recommendation? Play basketball with your friends — online.
There was one big problem: The nation’s top public health professionals failed to consult their very colleagues who’d be responsible for communicating this advice to the public.
“We have to have a seat at the table sooner, so we can raise our hand and say, ‘Hey guys, I’m sorry, but playing basketball virtually with your friends is probably not a great recommendation,’” a CDC staffer told NBC News before adding: “That’s pretty stupid.”
Another staffer echoed the frustration. “There were a number of people inside the agency that were sometimes perplexed at whether what we were recommending was really practical.”
Communication failures like that, along with much more consequential errors, would continue throughout the pandemic, deeply tarnishing the agency — long considered the gold standard of public health institutions. The blunders have left career scientists and other longtime employees worried that the wounds can’t be healed.
All culminated in what would become a series of unsettlingly defining moments for CDC employees who say the agency was unable to move fast enough for the public with science solid enough to meet their own expectations.
This account is based on interviews with seven CDC employees who spoke to NBC News about their experiences during the pandemic on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters freely. All but one have been with the agency for at least 14 years, and three are nearing or have exceeded their third decade of service.
While some employees say they are optimistic that the agency can improve its public health responses, blunders during the Covid response still haunt those who have dedicated their lives to public health.
“When people ask, ‘where do you work?’ I used to say that ‘I work at CDC’ with pride,” a staffer said. “Now I just tell people that I work in public health and not exactly where I work, because it’s just going to become a discussion of our failures.”
“People’s lives were changing based on our decisions,” said a senior scientist within the agency. “The fear, the anxiety, the stress …” the person said, trailing off. “If only we could have stopped time.”
“There are going to be headlines that praise you and headlines that slam you,” the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC News. “It was going to be hard for the agency however it shook out. I can tell you numerous times where I’ve had these big decisions… many nights I’ve lost sleep.”
Six of the CDC employees who spoke to NBC News were either interviewed for or were otherwise heavily involved in a highly publicized review of the agency this year. The review was requested by Walensky and led by Jim Macrae, a longtime official within the Department of Health and Human Services.
“In our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Walensky said in a statement in August, when the review was completed. Macrae’s report on the agency’s pandemic response, published Sept. 1, echoed the need for the CDC to move more quickly and reliably.
Not all employees were happy with the proposed changes. “I certainly have talked to staff who are very distressed by it and feel very concerned,” a senior staffer said.
Another was more blunt: “It’s gonna piss off a lot of people, and people are going to leave.”
But others said they were relieved to see their frustrations outlined in Macrae’s final report, and ultimately, all agreed that the agency must make drastic changes before the next public health emergency.