Centers For Damage Control

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 20 2014 @ 4:44pm

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After its fumbling of the Ebola outbreak, the public has rightly soured on the CDC:

A new CBS News poll shows just 37 percent of American rate the CDC as either excellent or good, while 60 percent rate it as fair or poor — a virtual mirror image of 17 months ago. The worst part: The agency now ranks below the Secret Service, which has dealt with a series of scandals in recent weeks and years. But the CDC is still slightly more popular than the IRS.

Morrissey isn’t surprised:

Back when I worked for a defense contractor in its technical publications department, one worker had a sign in her cubicle which accurately diagnoses the phenomenon in play here: “One aws**t cancels out a thousand attaboys.” It isn’t what the CDC did for the past ten years, but what they’re doing when the spotlight is on them that counts. In fact, the CDC’s performance over the past few weeks will have people questioning just how well they’ve done their job all along, and perhaps they should.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the public perception might be a little too harsh. One amazing aspect of this poll is that the CDC is only seven points up on the VA (30%) and only six over the IRS (31%). Both of those agencies have been embroiled in scandals that involve outright corruption, not just incompetence, and yet they’re almost within the margin of error with the CDC, which to this point is only considered to be well-meaning but failing.

Harold Pollack defends the agency:

Despite the CDC’s budget problems and its recent stumbles, it is a more effective, better-led organization than it was during the Bush years, when five out of six former agency directors publicly criticized the CDC’s managerial hijinks, low morale and lapses from scientific integrity. At that time, the CDC ranked 189th out of 222 federal agencies in workforce morale. It now ranks 49th out of 300 federal agencies on such measures. That’s a striking improvement.

“When the public health enterprise loses political standing,” he adds, “it may not be listened to when it most needs to be heard”:

Almost 40 years ago, the CDC suffered public humiliation when it was perceived as having bungled a massive vaccination campaign for a Swine Flu epidemic that didn’t materialize. Only a few years later, CDC officials tried to sound warnings about a mysterious new pathogen. They were shoved aside, often by government and medical officials who specifically cited the Swine Flu debacle. One unfortunate 1983 Red Cross memo, opposing aggressive measures to protect America’s blood supply, expressed the general mood: “CDC is likely to continue to play up AIDS,” because “CDC increasingly needs a major epidemic to justify its existence.”