A Kentucky example shows how CDC’s slow, cautious approach to the pandemic contributed to its spread, especially in rural areas

Harrison County Judge-Executive Alex Barnett, Magistrate Dwayne Florence and Treasurer Melody McClure said the pledge of allegiance at a Fiscal Court meeting. Barnett told USA Today, “I am no expert in health … I am an expert on growing cattle and tobacco. I rely on the CDC.” (Photo by Jack Gruber)

A bombshell USA Today package details how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to effectively respond to the growing pandemic, adding to its spread across the U.S.—especially in small towns and rural areas.

“Reporters reviewed 42,000 pages of emails and memos obtained from health departments and interviewed more than 100 community leaders and public health experts, including current and former CDC officials,” Brett Murphy and Letitia Stein report. “The agency has received widespread scrutiny for yielding to political pressure from the White House. These interviews and records provide the most extensive look yet at how the CDC, paralyzed by bureaucracy, failed to consistently perform its most basic job: giving public-health authorities the guidance needed to save American lives during a pandemic.”

State and local authorities sought help and guidance from the CDC starting in January, but the CDC ignored questions, gave conflicting advice, brushed off calls to take the pandemic more seriously, and as late as April, continued to downplay the potential harm of the coronavirus, USA Today reports.

“In the most extreme cases, the CDC undermined health officials advocating a more aggressive approach to control the spread,” Murphy and Stein report. “The agency went so far as to edit a government science journal in late March to remove a Washington state epidemiologist’s call for testing throughout senior assisted-living facilities. ‘I would be careful promoting widespread testing,’ the CDC editor noted.”

Julia Donohue (USA Today photo by Jack Gruber)

The story highlights how the CDC’s missteps hurt small towns such as Cynthiana, a Kentucky town of 6,400 that took the agency’s advice to continue life as normal, Murphy and Stein report. In early March, Cynthiana resident Julia Donohue got covid-19, the first confirmed case in the state. But the local hospital she went to had received no urgent warnings about community spread, and the more than 50 hospital workers who came into close contact with her did not wear masks or other protective gear that was in short supply. Cynthiana became the epicenter of a statewide outbreak.

Harrison County Judge-Executive Alex Barnett told USA Today that heeded the CDC’s advice that it wasn’t that big of a threat. He spent the next two weeks posting pictures on Facebook of himself and his wife eating lunch at different local restaurants, hoping to convince others that it was safe. “For the two weeks from when Donohue fell ill until the governor shut down the state, Barnett said he did not realize how much the small city of Cynthiana was at risk,” Murphy and Stein report.

“I am no expert in health when it comes down to it. I am a farmer,” Barnett told USA Today. “I am an expert on growing cattle and tobacco. I rely on the CDC for guidance.” However, Barnett did try to help the local newspaper inform Cynthiana residents. Two days after Donohue’s test came back positive, Barnett agreed to fund delivery to every mailbox in the county of a special edition of The Cynthiana Democrat explaining the best known facts about the coronavirus.

Editor Becky Barnes, who won the 2020 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian, said she proposed the extra because people needed to know the facts, and not everyone had access to the internet. Meanwhile, Kentucky health officials were getting impractical advice from the CDC, if they received any replies to questions at all, Murphy and Stein report.
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