CDC director 'concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating' on masks, social distancing

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield defended the federal response to COVID-19 on Thursday before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations subcommittee. (CDC)

Federal health officials are concerned Americans aren't using the best tools at their disposal to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director (CDC) Robert Redfield said Thursday.

Redfield testified at a House appropriations subcommittee hearing that he found pictures of crowds gathering to watch the recent SpaceX launch or throngs of partiers at the Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend evidence of "serious problems." 

"We are very concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating," Redfield said. "We continue to try to figure out how to penetrate the message with different groups. We’re going to encourage people who have the ability to request or require masks when they are in their environment to continue to do that. We think it’s an important public health tool and are trying to get more people to embrace it."

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When it comes to masks, Redfield said the CDC continues to recommend them despite early conflicting messages about their value and a growing resistance from many Americans.

“We continue to see these as a critical public health tool. We asked the American public to be vigilant in utilizing it, particularly as a major mechanism we have to protect the vulnerable," the CDC director said.

Among issues raised included lack of COVID-19 testing data that could be broken down by race and ethnicity.

Specific questions were also raised about what resources federal agencies like CDC and state agencies would need in advance of the fall when many public officials believe there could be a second wave of spread. Redfield said he expects the U.S. will need to build a workforce of between 30,000 and 100,000 contact tracers as part of its infection control strategy. "We really have to get this built between now and September and get these public health workforces up," Redfield said. "I don’t what that magic number is. It is fundamental we have a fully operational contact tracing workforce so that with every single case, every single cluster, we can do comprehensive contract tracing within 24 to 36 hours so we can keep states in containment mode."

Redfield's testimony came as several Democrats on the committee raised concern that politics were trumping science in guiding the reopening of economies around the U.S. Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, questioned the absence of the CDC in leading the administration's response to the pandemic.

"For us to keep our people safe, our response needs to be led by the scientists and the public health experts at CDC. Our response needs to be based on reliable public health principles, not political appointees in the White House," DeLauro said. "How is our country going to reopen when there is not a coordinated nationwide effort to test, contact trace and isolate cases? Why are states disregarding CDC's guidelines for reopening business and for social activities? Why are CDC's guidelines not at the forefront?"

Republicans on the committee including congressman Andy Harris, R-Maryland, a doctor who specialized in obstetrical anesthesiology, rejected the idea science was being ignored in pushing for reopening and suggested delays in reopening were driven by politics.

Harris pushed Redfield on the question of face masks saying "there is now a cult of masks." He asked if the CDC guidance was blocking leaders, such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, from allowing restaurants to offer indoor dining again as the state moved into a new phase of reopening.

"Could the governor say: 'Well, CDC guidance is holding me back' once phase two gating has been exceeded?" Harris said.

Redfield said that guidance regarding restaurants was not in the CDC guidelines. "The principle of the science we have right now on social distancing is that six feet, two meter distancing, that's the key." 

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