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CDC slammed by safety panel in wake of missteps

By Doug G. Ware
CDC slammed by safety panel in wake of missteps
CDC Director Tom Frieden said his agency is taking steps to improve deficiencies involving security and health risks after a safety panel criticized the CDC for multiple recent missteps. Photo: UPI/David Tulis | License Photo

ATLANTA, March 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been heavily criticized by a panel of safety experts that was asked to look into the agency's practices following multiple high-profile and dangerous blunders.

Three of those errors occurred in 2014 alone. One involved the Ebola virus and another anthrax. Agency chief Tom Frieden told Congress last year he was addressing the safety concerns and ordered the panel review, which took months to evaluate and document.

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The CDC received the panel's recommendations in January but the CDC didn't release that report until this week, USA Today reported Thursday.

"Leadership commitment toward safety has been inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels," the report said. "Safety is not integrated into strategic planning and is not currently part of the CDC culture, enterprise-wide.

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"Disturbingly, the negative responses peak among those individuals who work at [biosafety levels] 3 and 4, especially among those holding a master's degree."

Biosafety levels 3 and 4 are the top two levels at the facility.

Early last year, the CDC erred by sending a biological specimen that had been inadvertently cross-contaminated with a deadly strain of bird flu to another facility.

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In June, scientists at the agency mishandled live anthrax and potentially exposed 86 CDC employees to the bacteria, USA Today reported.

Then in December, a mix up of specimens of the Ebola virus led the agency to monitor a lab worker for three weeks due to possible exposure. That worker never got sick, officials said.

The advisory panel made several recommendations following its review -- including better safety training, improved quality control protocols and increased communication among staff.

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"Individual divisions, teams and lab groups have taken it upon themselves to implement safety programs, but this is not done in a consistent manner, nor is it done across the CDC," the committee report said. "This should be an expectation, and all persons are accountable."

The advisers recommended creating a new position to directly handle matters related to consistent procedures.

The commission also said appropriate risk assessments for lab work are either inadequate or not being done at all.

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Part of the lack of accountability at the CDC, the report says, is due to workers' concerns regarding the serious security nature of violations and their potential repercussions.

"One example of this was the case report of the CDC accident involving highly pathogenic [bird flu] that became public in June," it said. "A significant percentage of CDC staff have concerns about experiencing negative repercussions, either personally or more generally to the agency, as a result of reporting incidents."

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In all, the panel made 20 recommendations designed to improve protocols and address the problems found within the agency. The CDC said it is already taking steps to improve deficiencies in its current policies and procedures.

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