Former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered for an online debate last week to discuss ways to retool the nation’s largest public health agency and regain the public’s trust.
Two years after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, only 44% of Americans say they trust the CDC for information about COVID-19, down significantly from April 2020 when 69% of Americans said they trusted the agency, according to this NBC News poll.
There is a myriad of reasons why trust in the agency has eroded, including the botched rollout of COVID-19 testing at the very beginning of the pandemic, increased political polarization that has deepened distrust of federal institutions and scientists, lack of timely COVID-19 data and challenges within the agency in communicating public health guidance about the pandemic.
“Worldwide, people have lost faith in institutions,” William Roper, M.D., M.P.H., CDC director from 1990 to 1993, said during the April 5 webinar hosted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “CDC is unfortunately a part of that.”
He added that the ongoing challenge for CDC is to do a better job of explaining the uncertainty of the scientific process, which, if detailed more clearly, could help restore the public’s trust.
“I’m not criticizing any decisions recently made or done or whatever,” he said. “But I think it’s important that each time CDC or any other health official makes a pronouncement, to say with humility…. ‘This is what we know today. And this is our best advice given what we know today. We may know [something different] tomorrow, and if it is different from what we know today, we will change our advice tomorrow.’”