(CNN) — The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was “never blind” to the early spread of the coronavirus in the United States, the agency’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, told reporters on Friday.
Redfield defended the CDC’s surveillance for the coronavirus and denied that the agency missed the spread of the virus across the country.
“We were never blind when it came to surveillance for coronavirus 19,” Redfield said.
“The reality is the surveillance systems that CDC had developed over the years for respiratory viral diseases, particularly the influenza-like illness, really did give us eyes on this disease as it began to emerge,” Redfield said. “Independent of testing, we had pretty good eyes on whether there was any new respiratory influenza-like illness occurring in our country.”
Redfield was discussing a new CDC report that shows the virus was already spreading some in January and early February in Washington state and other Pacific Northwest areas, much earlier than when the first case of community spread was confirmed in the United States in late February. CDC previously has been criticized for its slow response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The new research, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Friday, suggests that there was some community transmission of the novel coronavirus in the United States between the latter half of January and the beginning of February — as researchers had previously thought — and the virus likely was introduced from China.
The report uses four different sources: emergency department records in the National Syndromic Surveillance Program; coronavirus testing specimens; analysis of genetic material from the virus; and some of the earliest cases with no relation to travel that were first confirmed in the nation.
“CDC’s findings published today in the MMWR suggest that the virus that causes Covid-19 was imported into the United States from China in late January, early February, and this importation caused limited community spread in the northwestern United States,” Redfield said on Friday.
“The data also suggest that cases of Covid-19 were not yet present in the eastern or midwestern states during the same time frame. However the findings do show that in late February, early March, there were several importations of the virus from Europe into California, northeastern United States and possibly elsewhere. Subsequent to that, nationwide spread of the virus occurred,” Redfield said.
“What this data clearly shows is, by four independent lines of evidence, that the early introduction of this virus in the northwest and northern California was sometime between the second week of January and the second week of February,” he said. “I think it’s really important that it puts data into the discussion, as opposed to prior to this we had the discussion without a lot of data.”
Previously, the CDC received some criticism for its response to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, including some delays in testing for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In early February, the CDC released a flawed test that took it weeks to correct. That left state and local public health labs across the country effectively sidelined. Many labs were waiting for the revised CDC tests, while commercial and clinical labs were barred from conducting their own tests unless they went through a complex process of applying for their own emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration.
“We really were … basically on a pause for a few weeks within the public health system,” Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said in April. “And meanwhile, the academic laboratories who had developed their own tests also were not able to test because the regulations didn’t allow it at that time.”
As a result, several expert reports have said the federal government squandered a critical month during which aggressive and widespread testing might have reduced the speed and scale of the pandemic.
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