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COVID-19 landed in the CDC's blind spot, health officials say

The notification system the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used to keep track of potentially infected travelers coming to the US briefly went offline in mid-February when COVID-19 first started ravaging the country.

Health officials say that system blunder, as well as other missteps like testing, old technology and clashes with the White House may have undermined the country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a New York Times investigation. 

More than 106,000 Americans have now died from coronavirus and there have been over 1.6 million infections since the virus started spreading rapidly more than three months ago. 

Health officials say that when the virus started to grow in January, it was difficult to get accurate information regarding infections and the potential spread due to the CDC's outdated data systems. 

The notification system the CDC used to keep track of potentially infected travelers coming to the US briefly went offline in mid-February when COVID-19 first started ravaging the country. Officials say the CDC's handling of the crisis has shaken the longstanding confidence they had in the agency and its director Robert Redfield (above)

The CDC used a system called Epi-X when they started tracking potentially infected travelers arriving from China throughout February.

The system involved the CDC sending an email to state health officials for each arriving flight that contained a list of possibly infected passengers.

Health officials say that the data was often incorrect and included errors in phone numbers and addresses for the passengers.

Some of that data was sent to the wrong state and was only given back to the correct health officials more than a week after the passenger had come to the US.

That system briefly went down in mid-February so the CDC could 'improve data quality'.

When the CDC was asked on a call with state health officials about the possibility that infected passengers could get away unnoticed due to the system being down, some officials recall being told: 'Just let them go'.

Some of the information assembled by the CDC regarding infection and death totals relied on calls with local health officials or them sending over faxes and spreadsheets.

Officials say the lack of integrated systems delayed being able to share vital information with medical staff and hospitals that could have benefited patients. 

'Here is an agency that has been waiting its entire existence for this moment,' said Dr Peter Lurie, a former associate commissioner at the FDA. 

'And then they flub it. It is very sad. That is what they were set up to do.'  

The CDC used a system called Epi-X when they started tracking potentially infected travelers arriving from China throughout February. Pictured above is the TSA screening area in New York's JFK airport in March when traveling was dwindling

Meanwhile, red tape issues regarding testing were being reported way back in January. As travelers continued to arrive from China, the CDC lab in Atlanta, Georgia was initially the only place in the US that was equipped with a blood test that could accurately diagnose the virus 

Officials say the CDC's handling of the crisis has shaken the longstanding confidence they had in the agency and its director Robert Redfield. 

In a statement, the CDC said it was providing the 'best, most current data' they have amid the ongoing pandemic.

'CDC is at the table as part of the larger US government response, providing the best, most current data and scientific understanding we have,' the statement said.  

'It's important to remember that this is a global emergency - and it's impacting the entire US.

'That means it requires an all-of-government response.' 

Meanwhile, red tape issues regarding testing were being reported way back in January when health officials and President Trump assured Americans the risk of getting COVID-19 in the US was low.   

As travelers continued to arrive from China, the CDC lab in Atlanta, Georgia was initially the only place in the US that was equipped with a blood test that could accurately diagnose the virus. 

The lack of testing became a heated issue when the pandemic first broke out and the CDC had to request emergency authorization from the FDA for tests to be sent to the states. 

The agency then had to re-manufacture components of the testing kit and several state labs said the diagnostic was returning 'inconclusive results.' 

It prompted several states to file emergency requests to conduct their own testing.  

Back in March, Dr Redfield told Congress that a lack of funding was the reason America's response to the outbreak had been so slow.

'The truth is we've underinvested in the public health labs,' Dr Redfield said at the time.

'There's not enough equipment, there's not enough people, there's not enough internal capacity, there's no search capacity.' 

Tensions between the CDC, President Donald Trump and White House aides also hindered the response, according to some officials.  

An example of such tensions include the CDC quietly releasing detailed guidance on how states could reopen amid the pandemic after it was initially shelved by the White House. 

The 60-page document, which offers guidance on reopening schools, transit and workplaces, was posted on the CDC's website last month without any formal announcement after Trump pushed for state's to reopen to kickstart the economy again. 

The guidance, which was more detailed and restrictive than the plan released by the White House in April, came weeks after some states started lifting stay-at-home measures and reopening their economies.

The White House's 'Opening Up America Again' plan included some of the CDC's approach but made clear that the onus for reopening decisions was solely on state governors and local officials.  

More than a month earlier, the CDC gave White House officials a more detailed version of decision tools and additional pages of guidance.

The White House initially shelved all the guidance. Internal government emails show that Redfield had repeatedly sought White House approval for CDC's guidance starting as early as April 10. 

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