4 former CDC directors on the vaccine rollout, variants and more: 7 insights

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many cracks in our nation's public health system and underscored the need to be better prepared for future outbreaks, four former CDC directors said during a Jan. 14 interview on NBC's "Today."

Collectively, the leaders have nearly 50 years of experiencing running the CDC. Their names and current titles are listed below:

  • Tom Frieden, MD, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives
  • Jeffrey Koplan, MD, Vice President for Global Health at Atlanta-based Emory University
  • Julie Gerberding, MD, chief patient officer and executive vice president at Merck
  • Richard Besser, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Here are seven quotes from the conversation, as cited by NBC.

On the vaccine rollout:

Dr. Besser: "I worry when I hear announcements: Well, let's open the flood gates and anyone over 65 who wants the vaccine can get it. Well, there's not enough vaccine to meet all that demand. And some of the groups that are the most challenging to reach, rural populations, front-line workers who aren't in the health care system, I worry that they would be left out."

Dr. Gerberding: "Our public health system is operating on less than a shoestring. And when people wonder why is it taking so long to set up vaccine clinics or get vaccine out to people, it's because our public health system doesn't have people."

Dr. Frieden: "Vaccination may substantially reduce the death rate in nursing homes and among the elderly in the next few months. But vaccination is not going to end this pandemic for most of 2021. Even in a best-case scenario, we're looking at the fall or beyond. And remember, the vaccines have not yet been studied in children under the age of 16. So this is not in any near-term going to be a childhood vaccination."

On coronavirus variants:

Dr. Koplan: "What is being identified is any spread of the disease. The vaccines that we have  —  there's no reason to think and there's no evidence that they are less effective against those vaccines."

Dr. Besser: "Something that transmits easier means that we have to be so much better than we currently are at following the recommendations of CDC, following the recommendations of public health. And we need our political leaders to hammer that message. Because if people feel that vaccines are going to turn the tide this winter, they are sorely mistaken, and we will lose — we could lose hundreds of millions of lives."

On the possibility of future pandemics:

Dr. Gerberding: "I hate to sound like a negative person, but we live in a perfect storm for the emergence of new infectious diseases that spill over from the animal kingdom. There's nothing to say that the next virus that spills over wouldn't have a force of mortality that is significantly worse than what we're dealing with." 

Dr. Frieden: "This is our time to fix the rapid response system for infectious diseases because it's broken. And I fear that if we blow it this time, if we don't fix this in 2021, we may never fix it."

More articles on public health:

COVID-19 lungs worse than smoker lungs, surgeon says
Illinois researchers identify new variant, say it accounts for half of all US cases
California hospitals should prepare for crisis care, hospital association CEO says


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