The CDC tells CBS to Talk to the Hand

From a CBS blog by Sharyl Attkisson, October 27, 2009:

In August 2009, CBS News made a simple request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public documents, e-mails and other materials CDC used to communicate to states the decision to stop testing individual cases of Novel H1N1, or “swine flu.” When the public affairs folks at CDC refused to produce the documents and quit responding to my queries altogether, I filed a formal Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the materials. Members of the news media are entitled to expedited access, which I requested, since this was for a pending news report and on an issue of public health and interest.


Two months after my FOI request, the CDC has yet to produce any of these easily retrievable materials.


Today, I received a letter from the CDC Freedom of Information office, which even by the normal baffling standards, borders on the absurd. The letter is to inform me that my request for “expedited” treatment of my FOI request has been denied because CDC has determined the request is “not a matter of widespread and exceptional media and public interest.”

First, it seems ill advised to allow the responding agency (which often doesn’t want the info released) to determine whether an issue is of media and public interest and, therefore, subject to expedited treatment. Further, the CDC may be the only agency on the planet to argue that testing and counting of swine flu cases is “not of widespread and exceptional media and public interest.”

CBS News reporting on the topic has been quoted and reproduced internationally by news organizations such as California NPR, radio talk shows and others. [If you believe this matter is of public interest, you can express that view to CDC FOI Officer Lynn Armstrong or Katherine Norris at 404-639-7270 (recording) or 404-639-7395 (fax).]


As for the CDC? Their letter denying expedited treatment assures me they are “continuing to process” my request on a non-expedited basis.

Tick, tick, tick…

Sadly, the CDC’s failure to provide information requested by a member of the national press is not surprising. Many of us have encountered similar denials of request for information. The CDC has gone to great lengths to hide certain sorts of information. This is especially true of information related to case fatality rates. They have internal information indicating much higher case fatality rates than they have publicly acknowledged. Their public statements about a “mild” pandemic hinge on large numbers of people being infected but not dying. If they admitted that the number infected had been much lower, earlier in the pandemic when Ms. Attkisson made her request for information, the calculated CFR would obviously be much higher. This is why they have not provided her with the information she seeks, in my opinion. This is also why they do not provide data from seroprevalence studies, in my opinion. Now that the number of people becoming infected is increasing at an exponential rate, telling the truth about case fatality rate would be political dynamite.

The failure of the CDC to provide reasonable information in a timely fashion encourages conspiracy theorists (“They’re going to control your thoughts with a little computer chip in the vaccine!”) and anti-vaccine agitators (“The CDC is hyping the pandemic so they can give your kid autism with a flu vaccine!”). Most of the American public would be reasonable about vaccines if the CDC disclosed all the information that they have. Since they have not, many will wonder why they are hiding information.

Thanks a lot, CDC.


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