published Thursday, October 17th, 2013

CDC returns to full workforce after anxious shutdown

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stands behind a street sign marking the agency's entrance in Atlanta.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stands behind a street sign marking the agency's entrance in Atlanta.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — On Thursday morning, Eduardo Gomez was struck by what he saw as he arrived at work.

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was standing amid the rain and traffic, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, greeting motorists as they drove into the CDC's headquarters campus.

"He was welcoming us back," said Gomez. "It was impressive."

CDC leaders felt such a gesture was necessary, following a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government — one of the most frustrating, nail-biting times in the agency's history.

The Atlanta-based CDC is the nation's leading public health agency, responsible for disease outbreaks investigations and illness prevention campaigns. But with about 9,000 of the CDC's 13,000 workers furloughed, agency officials were losing the ability to track and respond to new and old dangers. They say the situation was growing more harrowing by the day.

"I just hope it never happens again," said Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC director, speaking to a reporter a couple of hours after his turn at the agency's main gates.

The CDC became something of a ghost town these past few weeks, with administrators having to make hard, daily decisions about what work was most essential and how to assign available staff.

Among the priorities CDC did work on:

• A salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 300 people in 20 states.

• A cluster of hepatitis and liver failure hospitalizations in Hawaiians who had taken a dietary supplement.

• A Legionnaire's disease outbreak in the city of Florence, Ala.

But with millions of emails into the agency going unread, "we just didn't know what (else) we were missing," Frieden said.

It will take weeks to sort out gaps in disease surveillance, re-start vaccination campaigns and get back up to speed on other work, he added.

CDC officials believe the agency's reputation took a hit these past few weeks. CDC workers are embedded in every state and 50 countries, and play key roles in identifying and preventing health threats. But because of the partial shutdown, a lot of that assistance simply ceased.

Denise Traicoff's eyes misted as she talked about the work she missed. Traicoff has been helping health workers in other nations fight polio. One man, working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recently had replied to one her messages by saying 'it's such a delight to hear from you in my solitude,' she said.

But the partial shutdown meant such communications stopped, and that man and others were temporarily abandoned. "I'm mostly really frustrated," Traicoff said.

At least she will get paid for the time he was forced to stay home. That likely is not the case for roughly 7,000 contractors who are not technically CDC employees but work at the agency doing jobs like security, clerical work, laboratory support, and technology maintenance.

"These are often people who can least afford" such a financial hit, Frieden said. "There's not much we can do," he added.

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