NOEL KING, HOST:
For almost a year, the Trump administration sidelined and contradicted the CDC. And so while it is fighting the biggest public health challenge it's ever faced, that agency is also working to rebuild trust with the American public. For the past few weeks, NPR's Pien Huang has been talking to people at the CDC about what that's been like. Pien is with us now.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: Who have you been talking to?
HUANG: Well, I've been talking with people who have been working in the CDC response since the very first COVID cases were found. I've also spoken with Dr. Rochelle Walensky. She's the current CDC director, and she took on that role in January. And the thing that I heard over and over is that even though the CDC may not have been visible for much of the pandemic, they've been working very hard. Here's Peggy Honein, who started working in the response last February.
PEGGY HONEIN: You mentioned that you haven't always heard our voice, and I just want to emphasize that the work has continued every day of the response.
HUANG: Honein, for instance, leads a task force that supports states and tribes and territories. And during the pandemic, they've made more than 3,000 trips out to states and local health departments to help with things like training and contact tracing and investigating COVID outbreaks.
KING: But their lack of visibility during much of the pandemic - that's probably had real consequences, right?
HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, under the Trump administration, the CDC's advice on things like tests and masking was often ignored or, like you said, even contradicted. And the CDC itself made some early mistakes. And those things have all seriously eroded public trust. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I think that it's really a shame that we in this country can't all agree that it would be a good thing to not have infection in this country - it would be a good thing to not have deaths - and that if you wear masks, you can prevent infection. I think we inherited an unfortunate situation there.
HUANG: And the agency needs the public to trust them and to do what they recommend to end this pandemic, so rebuilding that trust is one of their top priorities.
KING: How do they plan to do that?
HUANG: Well, first, Walensky has pledged that the agency will be transparent. I mean, one of the things that's been confusing to the public is why their advice changes. You know, why, for instance, did physical distancing shrink from 6 feet to 3 feet in schools? And she says we're going to be clear about the science they're using to drive their decisions.
They've actually recently reviewed the website and removed some information put up during the Trump administration days that wasn't authorized by its scientists. And the other key thing now is that the CDC's messaging is in lockstep with the Biden-Harris administration. So getting political interference out of it has been a huge help. But Dr. Ali Khan, a former CDC official, told me that that isn't their only problem.
ALI KHAN: My caution for the agency is that they don't lump all of their troubles under politicization of the response. There are fundamental issues that need to be fixed about public health in America, and that need to be fixed at CDC.
HUANG: He says that they've made missteps on testing and mask guidance and that public health in the U.S. has been ignored and underfunded for many, many years.
KING: When you put that charge to people at the CDC, what did they say?
HUANG: Well, Walensky said that it's true. Their record is not perfect, and they will be reviewing the mistakes that they've made and figuring out how to do better in the future. But for now, they're focused on the many challenges ahead. They're working with states to get those COVID vaccines out both quickly and equitably. They're tracking the spread of coronavirus variants. And Dr. Henry Walke, the leader of the CDC's COVID response, says that one of the biggest things they're facing right now is pandemic fatigue.
HENRY WALKE: CDC certainly has a role, but it also requires the whole U.S. government and, basically, all American citizens, really, to contribute to the control.
HUANG: Walke says that it's going to take everyone pulling in the same direction to make it possible for all of us, including the 8,000 people at CDC who've been working in the response, to get our normal lives back.
KING: Eight thousand people - NPR health reporter Pien Huang, thank you so much.
HUANG: Thanks for having me.
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