Shutdown forces CDC to furlough workers…even as disease breaks out

Agency brings in experts during salmonella outbreak

Since the government shut down on Oct. 1, CDC has furloughed more than two-thirds of its employees and dramatically scaled back monitoring of illnesses across the country, according to Director Thomas Frieden, although a salmonella outbreak this week has forced the agency to recall staff.

Because of the shutdown, the agency has:

  • Halted the issuing of daily updates on global outbreaks to world health officials;
  • Closed nine of its 10 global disease detection systems around the world; and
  • Closed its disease and outbreak hotline, which usually receives about 100 calls a day.

"From outside of the agency, it may be very hard to understand just how incredibly disruptive this is for our efforts to protect Americans," Frieden told CQ HealthBeat. He added that what worries him the most is missing a major disease outbreak or other health threat. In a typical year, the centers respond to about 200 outbreaks and detect six to 10 new pathogens.

Since the government shut down last week, House Republicans passed a bill to continuing funding for certain aspects of NIH and FDA. A resolution for CDC funding remains in the air, according to Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.,) who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS.

Some experts brought out of furloughs to handle outbreak

Meanwhile, CDC reported on Monday that a salmonella outbreak had spread to 18 states and caused 278 illnesses—the "exact situation that CDC and other about-to-be-furloughed federal personnel warned about" prior to the government shutting down, Maryn McKenna writes at Wired.

As a result, the agency brought back nearly 30 furloughed staffers on Monday, who quickly worked to gather information on 183 of the outbreak victims, 42% of whom have been hospitalized, including some who show signs of resistance to common antibiotic treatment.

CDC said the returning workers—including about 10 experts on foodborne illnesses—will "find additional cases nationwide, characterize the outbreak, and characterize the bacteria for antibiotic resistance."

Christopher Braden—head of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases—said the returning staff members are also monitoring more than 30 outbreaks along with the salmonella.

"This outbreak is just another example that requiring public health officials to make the choices about who to keep and who to send home can really have huge impacts on not only the individuals involved but on public health and safety," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety advocacy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

She added that these agencies "are always running behind, and the idea that you can just shut them down is just foolish" (McKenna, Wired, 10/7; Dennis, Washington Post, 10/8; Guston, CQ Roll Call, 10/8 [subscription required]; Adams, CQ Roll Call, 10/8 [subscription required] Holland, Sacramento Bee, 10/8; Petrochko, "Gupta Guide," MedPage Today, 10/8; Jalonick, AP/ABC News, 10/8).

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