The federal coronavirus response: Is anyone at the wheel?

Health and politics have always overlapped. . . but this is different. The alaphabet soup of government agencies showing up in the news has created plenty of confusion and distraction around what, exactly, the federal government is and is not doing about the pandemic. Below is a basic breakdown of the federal bodies that have been name-checked alot recently (along with some slightly salty comentary). 

  • The White House Corona Virus Task force is chaired by VP Mike Pence (note: not a scientist or health care professional) and coordinated by Dr. Deborah Birx (who has served in the military, the NIH, and the CDC). Interesting to note here that SHE reports to HIM. She has generally presented a pretty straightforward script urging social distancing and has mostly avoided public disagreements with 45. She’s been criticized for downplaying dangers and for leading the plan to bypass the CDC with coronavirus data, sending it instead straight to DHHS— a move that sets off alarm bells for the politicization of the data. The task force includes various other high-ranking health officials and political appointees in other areas. The task force was very active early in the year, but seems to have dwindled into obscurity despite the ongoing pandemic.
  • The CDC— Centers for Disease Control & Prevention— is primarily a public health operational organization, responding to health threats including disease outbreaks. The CDC is part of the Department of Health & Human Services and is currently directed by Dr. Robert Redfield, who was appointed in 2018 by 45. He did not have prior experience leading a public health organization. He, like other officials who are supposed to uphold scientific integrity, has been criticized for unwillingness to push back on the Trump administration’s politicization of science.  Redfield has led the agency in support of Trump administration priorities such as aggressive school reopenings and limited testing. (To me, these are clearly political priorities— make things look normal, prioritize the economy, limit testing to hide the true extent of the pandemic).
  • The NIH— National Institutes of Health— is primarily a research organization, headed by Dr. Fancis Collins, with subsections including NIAID, headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci. Dr. Collins was appointed by President Obama in 2009 and had been at the NIH for decades before that. So has Dr. Fauci. The NIH has been in a somewhat less politically precarious position than other bodies like the FDA, although certainly the high profile of Dr. Fauci, who has enormous scientific credibility with the public and who has advised many presidents, has sometimes ruffled 45’s feathers by gently disagreeing with him in public.
  • The FDA- Food & Drug Administration— is primarily a regulatory body, tasked with ensuring safety of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and the food system. The FDA is also an agency underneath the Department of Health and Human Services, so leadership is appointed by executive branch (i.e., the President). This is the body that has issued the controversial EOUs (emergency use authorizations) of hydroxychloroqine and convalescent plasma. They are also in charge of regulating vaccines, so they are sure to stay in the news. The current commissioner of the FDA, Dr. Stephen Hahn, was appointed by 45 in December of 2019. He did not have previous experience at the FDA and has not shown strong leadership— the NYT reports he is not even allowed to talk to the press without an approved chaperone.  (My two cents: It appears that FDA officials are largely unwilling to challenge the President, even when he says and does things that are scientifically unreasonable. They’re probably right that they’d lose their jobs and be replaced with yes-men.)

So, is anyone driving this bus? Have they ever driven a bus before? And wait, do we even have a map? I’m going to go with no, no, and no. The uncoordinated and puzzlingly scientifically unsupported actions seem to come into focus when looking at this picture. Are there other missing pieced you want to know about??

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