Former Acting Director of CDC Dr. Richard Besser: Frustrated with National Response to Pandemic

Aug 28, 2020

Dr. RIchard Besser is the President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting Director of the CDC
Credit rwjf.org

Dr. Richard Besser, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting Director of the CDC during the Obama Administration spoke with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle about his concerns over the national reponse to COVID-19,

In an op-ed recently published by CNN, Dr. Besser writes about the urgent need to reassess our current health insurance system.  Besser says as healthcare needs swell amid the pandemic, tens of millions of people have been left exposed and uncared for.  During his WBGO Journal interview he outlined the problems.

"At the start of this pandemic 28-million people in America lacked health insurance.  For many people with employer-based health insurance what they've been seeing is that the cost of that has been skyrocketing.  What people pay in terms of their premiums, what people pay in terms of their deductibles has just gone through the roof.  In a pandemic the impact of that becomes really clear.  If you just take some early guidance from the CDC.  What they recommended was that if you thought you have COVID, don't go to see your doctor, give a call because it may be that this can be handled over the phone.  We don't want you to come into  a medical setting whether it's an emergency room or an office where you could either spread COVID or pick it up from someone else who was there.  What does this say to tens of millions of people who don't have a doctor?  What it says is well you're either going to stay at home and potentially spread COVID to people who live around you because you're uncertain that's what you have and you haven't been given the services you need to prevent that spread or you're going to go into an emergency room or healthcare setting and either put healthcare workers at risk or yourself at risk.  For the wealthiest nation in the world it should be unacceptable that your income should have such a profound effect on your ability to be healthy."

Dr. Besser was asked about what he thought about the nation's overall approach to the pandemic.

"One of the things that really concern me is how politicized the response to the pandemic has become.  I ran emergency reponse at CDC for four years and during that time we did everything possible to try and keep politics out of decision making.  We wanted to ensure that everything that was done was done based on the best available public health science.  What we see in America right now is a real divide where public health leaders are calling on everyone in America to do the things that have been shown to work around the world, wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing, ensuring that everyone has what they need to protect themselves, their families and communities.  That message has been undercut in many place by political leaders who have said there's nothing to worry about, these are options that you can choose to do or not.  What I do has a profound effect on your health and what you do has an effect on mine. And if we don't come together as Americans with concern for each other we're not going to get this under control and we're going to see needless spread of disease and unfortunately preventable loss of life."

Dr. Besser says the lack of care has shown a spotlight on the unequal opportunities and systemic barriers that leave Black, Hispanic and Native Americans exposed and disproportionately vulnerable. 

Dr. Besser worked at the CDC for 13 years.

While working at the CDC for 13 years, Dr. Besser served as acting director of the CDC from January to June 2009, during which time he led the CDC's response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic.  He stresses he's more than frustrated over the nation's approach to COVID-19.

"Frustrated doesn't begin to capture what it feels like.  We have the best public agencies in the world, the CDC, the FDA, the National Insitutes of Health.  And to see CDC, which is the nation's response agency, it's the agency that so many countries around the globe turn to for advice  and expertise of how do you respond to a crisis like this, when you see them being sidelined, when we're not able to hear from them everyday in terms of what are they learning, when we're not seeing that leadership, when we're not seeing a unified strategy and approach, it's not just frustrating, it's demoralizing because we know we can do a little better than this."

Dr. Besser is the President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Credit rwjf.org

Dr. Besser is on New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy's Restart and Recovery Commission, one of three state representatives on the Regional Council that coordinates across the Northeast states.  How does he feel New Jersey and New York has handled the crisis?

"I'm quite proud of how New York and New Jersey are doing.  Not that there hasn't been mistakes, but there is every effort to lead with public health science and to know that policy changes that are made can have a profound effect on disease transmission.  So there's been this recognition that opening up aspects of the economy isn't always a one way street.   You may try something and it doesn't work and you roll it back.  So there's been caution, there's been the drive to lead with science and there's been intense and important conversations around equity.  People's need will vary."

To hear the entire conversation with Dr. Richard Besser, click at the top of the page.