We’re now on the sixteenth day of the federal shutdown. As I write, the Senate has announced a deal to avoid a debt default and open the government. It remains to be seen whether that will work, or how fast. Yesterday, on Day 15, I had a long conversation with Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about what this shutdown has meant for his agency, its employees, and the health of Americans, and the world. I have lightly edited the conversation for clarity.
Maryn McKenna, WIRED: You’re on Day 15 of sending home 68 percent of your 13,000-person staff, in Atlanta and around the world. How is the CDC coping?
Thomas R. Frieden, CDC: Every day this goes on, it gets harder to manage. We’re used to juggling things at CDC, but this is like juggling chain saws.
We’ve got two-thirds of our staff out. The exempt staff, the ones who are here, are here just because of a happenstance of how they’re paid: They are people who are on multi-year money, or grant money, or people in the Commissioned Corps, the uniformed Public Health Service. Of the people who are furloughable, 95 percent are furloughed.
I walk through the offices and talk to the remaining staff to thank them for being here. A woman who was the only person on her floor said to me, “We have no idea what we’re missing right now.” For years people have asked me, ‘Do you sleep well, knowing all these terrible threats we face?” And I’ve always said, “I sleep great because I know we have fantastic staff on watch.” And now I’m not sleeping.