How the world’s greatest public health organization was brought to its knees by a virus, the president and the capitulation of its own leaders, causing damage that could last much longer than the coronavirus.
Image: Leonardo Santamaria, special to ProPublica
James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella, Kirsten Berg
At 7:47 a.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Jay Butler pounded out a grim email to colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Butler, then the head of the agency’s coronavirus response, and his team had been trying to craft guidance to help Americans return safely to worship amid worries that two of its greatest comforts — the chanting of prayers and singing of hymns — could launch a deadly virus into the air with each breath.
The week before, the CDC had published its investigation of an outbreak at an Arkansas church that had resulted in four deaths. The agency’s scientific journal recently had detailed a superspreader event in which 52 of the 61 singers at a 2½-hour choir practice developed COVID-19. Two died.
Butler, an infectious disease specialist with more than three decades of experience, seemed the ideal person to lead the effort. Trained as one of the CDC’s elite disease detectives, he’d helped the FBI investigate the anthrax attacks, and he’d led the distribution of vaccines during the H1N1 flu pandemic when demand far outstripped supply. Read more >>