There were many reasons why the information the CDC had on January 17 was wrong. It was wrong because China’s leaders withheld what they already knew about the virus from the World Health Organization. It was wrong, perhaps, because Trump administration officials had cut CDC staffers in Beijing who might have reported the truth directly from China. And it was wrong because past coronavirus outbreaks provided a false guide to an illness new to humanity.
That last reason — a fateful misjudgment of the basic biology of the virus — drove a flawed strategy to contain the outbreak. In 17 press briefings from January to March, the agency pushed the idea that if travelers, first from Wuhan and then from China, were quickly identified, traced, and isolated, it could “slow and reduce” the spread of the virus on US soil. Believing people without symptoms didn’t spread the viru, the agency limited testing, discouraged masking, and left the country blinded by a faulty COVID-19 test.
Then, when the containment strategy’s failure became undeniable, just one day before the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic — the CDC disappeared from public view.
“When the outbreak started, we had an aggressive tracing program, but unfortunately, as the cases rose, it went beyond the capacity,” CDC Director Robert Redfield later testified to Congress.
“We lost the containment edge.”