Sen. Burr criticizes lack of hires for CDC program

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., listens as Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during his nomination hearing to become director of national intelligence on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Gabriella Demczuk /The New York Times via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing last week, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) questioned public health officials on the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to COVID-19.

During the hearing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield was asked by Burr if the CDC had filled any of the 30 staff positions Congress created to develop U.S. biosurveillance strategy and capabilities. Burr said Redfield was unable to do so. Senator Burr has raised this issue to the CDC on more than one occasion.

Biosurveillance leverages data and information-sharing to monitor, detect, identify, and respond to potential public health threats such as the current novel coronavirus pandemic. In June 2019, Congress renewed the Pandemic and All-Hazard Preparedness Act (PAHPA), a law authored by Senator Burr in 2005. The 2019 law allowed the CDC to hire 30 new biosurveillance specialists to improve coordination between the public and private sectors and report on the state of federal threat detection efforts.

At a Senate HELP Committee hearing in early March, Burr asked CDC principal deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat questions about the status of the biosurveillance capabilities. Noting that PAHPA devotes millions of dollars each year to state surveillance efforts, Schuchat was unable to provide specifics regarding the status. This was the time COVID-19 was confirmed to be in Washington state.

The CDC later confirmed that the agency had hired no new biosurveillance specialists to date.

When asked Tuesday, Redfield indicated no hires had been made for the positions by the CDC during the current pandemic.

During testimony, Burr said “I brought that to light the first of March and now we’re in mid-May. So, I’m hopeful that we won’t just talk about surveillance. We’ll actually execute it and we’ll focus the unbelievable amounts of money that we’ve provided for you, that they will show some benefit to the American people.”