STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Much of the workforce at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is criticizing the agency. A letter signed by more than 1,000 employees describes a toxic culture of racial aggression in the CDC. NPR has obtained that letter, and its allegation of bias is very relevant since the CDC is battling a pandemic that statistically has been striking people of color harder than others. NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin obtained the letter and is on the line. Good morning.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What case does this letter make?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it talks about the disproportionate impact of COVID on people of color that you mentioned, that the CDC should declare racism as a root cause of those disparities. And then it says, quote, "yet CDC must clean its own house first." It goes on and says we, quote, "can no longer stay silent to the widespread acts of racism and discrimination within CDC that are, in fact, undermining the agency's core mission." And then it outlines seven remedies, from disrupting the old boys club that promotes mostly white employees to increasing Black representation in senior leadership and more. And we've published the full seven-page letter at npr.org.
INSKEEP: Well, who are the people who signed it?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I talked to Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones. She was a medical officer at CDC for 14 years and is still in touch with current employees. She told me 1,007 people had signed as of Sunday evening. The agency has about 11,000 employees, so that works out to be 9% of the workforce. She said you had to be a current employee to sign, you could only sign once, and any employee could sign, not just people of color. So it's not clear what the racial breakdown of signatories is. And I should note that the signatures were gathered after the letter was presented to agency Director Robert Redfield, and they're still being gathered now.
INSKEEP: Well, how is the CDC answering this charge of, basically, structural racism within the agency?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: CDC gave NPR a brief statement acknowledging that the letter had been received by Redfield and that he had responded and that the agency is committed to creating a, quote, "fair, equitable and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns." I understand that Redfield did not respond to the specific requests for action or the specific allegations in the letter.
INSKEEP: OK. What is it that people are saying, in a little more detail, about what is happening inside this agency?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, no current employees at CDC would speak to me about this, even on background. My sense is that they're really nervous. But I did talk to some former CDC employees, including Jones, who I mentioned earlier. Here is what she said about her initial reaction.
CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: When I saw the letter, it was a feeling of resonance. It was a feeling of resonance. I know that this is no exaggeration.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I also talked with Greg Millett, who was a senior scientist at CDC and is now at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. The letter resonated with him, too, though he personally had strong mentors at CDC. He said he's found CDC unwilling to engage with the reality of racism in public health, and in the coronavirus pandemic, he says that's a real problem.
GREG MILLETT: CDC has been MIA on race and COVID-19. That to me is shameful.
INSKEEP: Well, Selena, let's get the facts out there, then. How big is the disparity between people of color and others?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the data are incomplete, but it looks like Black and Latino people in the U.S. are at least twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. And Jones says if Black scientists at CDC aren't being empowered to work on these disproportionate impacts and are instead having to deal with workplace racism...
JONES: We are squandering. We are squandering genius. We're squandering insight. We're squandering talent within CDC that could then lead CDC's mission to address the health issues of the nation.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says CDC should seize this moment, and she's not that confident that it will.
INSKEEP: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks so much.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
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