Barack Obama awards Dr. William Foege the Medal of Freedom in 2012. YouTube screenshot.

It's amazing how you can go through life and not be aware at all of some pretty well-known person, and then suddenly you learn they exist and then you know about them. Like for instance how I got yelled at by character actor Nick Searcy yesterday on Twitter, and I'd never heard of him before, but then I found out he was in "Justified" and directed a rightwing propaganda movie about unlicensed abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.

Or, in perhaps a far better instance, how I had somehow never been aware of public health expert Dr. William Foege until the news broke this week that he had written a letter to CDC Director Robert Redfield urging him to publicly condemn the Trump administration's mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. It's an astonishing letter, but to understand how significant it is, you need to know a bit more about Foege, who isn't just the former CDC director under Presidents Carter and Reagan, but a genuine giant in the field of public health. Foege played a key role in wiping out smallpox in Africa and India, and has since gone on to serve with the Carter Center, where he's led initiatives to eradicate other horrible diseases like river blindness and Guinea worm disease. Here's Barack Obama awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, although Foege kind of towers over the shrimpy little 6-foot-1 president:

Donald Trump, on the other hand, gave the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh

So when William Foege wrote a letter to Redfield urging him to take a stand for science, and to do it in such a way that he would surely be fired, it's a pretty big deal.


Foege's anguish over the toll the pandemic has taken, both on the American people and the CDC, an institution he plainly loves, is palpable. He argues it's time for Redfield to "face the truth" and acknowledge the administration has completely failed, because of its "incompetence and illogic," to handle the crisis:

This will go down as a colossal failure of the public health system of this country. The biggest challenge in a century and we let the country down. The public health texts of the future will use this as a lesson on how not to handle an infectious disease pandemic.

He goes on to outline exactly where the White House's approach to — or more accurately, its retreat from — the pandemic has gone off the rails, from treating a global pandemic with an "America First" attitude to its rejection of basic principles of both "good health and good management."

Foege singles out as one example the appointment of Dr. Scott Atlas to a top role on the coronavirus task force, even though he has no experience in immunology or public health. Atlas on Fox News has called for letting as many non-elderly Americans as possible get infected, in hopes of creating "herd immunity." While Atlas denies he's pushed that as policy to Trump, the "president" nonetheless keeps talking it up, even if he thinks it's called "herd mentality" (which more accurately describes Trump's death cult).

USA Today, which obtained a copy of the letter and published it Tuesday, notes that Foege hasn't publicly aired his opinions on the Trump coronavirus response; in the letter, he explains that he had hoped the White House would "see how disastrous their approach was and finally turn the job over to professionals. Now I know that won't happen." And so, he says, it's time for Redfield to take action that might genuinely shake things up — and not simply to resign in protest, which might get five minutes of coverage in the daily news flood. Instead, Foege calls for Redfield to send a letter to all CDC employees in which he would apologize for letting the White House push politics over science, and to make clear that has to stop:

You could upfront, acknowledge the tragedy of responding poorly, apologize for what has happened and your role in acquiescing, set a course for how CDC would now lead the country if there was no political interference, give them the ability to report such interference to a neutral ombudsman, and assure them that you will defend their attempts to save this country. Don't shy away from the fact this has been an unacceptable toll on our country. It is a slaughter and not just a political dispute.

You don't want to be seen, in the future. as forsaking your role as servant to the public in order to become a servant to a corrupt president.

He correctly assumes the White House would react "with fury" and fire him, which would give Redfield the chance to say, in the words of Martin Luther, "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise." And that, Foege, says, would likely be a multi-week story, possibly enough to force the administration to pay attention to science and let competent people run the response. Foege urges Redfield to "revisit your religious beliefs and ask yourself what is right."

We fear Foege may be too much of an optimist about the power of truth and a principled stand to change things in this administration, but we admire his call for Redfield to take that stand. For whatever good it would do against the tide of bullshit coming from the White House — USA Today reports that White House spox Judd Deere didn't comment on the specifics of the letter, but did bravely suggest that Foege might be a filthy Democrat, saying in a statement that "This dishonest narrative that the media and Democrats have created that politics is influencing decisions is not only false but is a danger to the American public." That's not a political statement at all.

And this is just heartbreaking:

"So much of this is the deaths. It's the deaths," Foege told USA TODAY, noting that he did not want the letter to become public for fear that it might create a political sideshow and add to Redfield's burden.

"Going public can only embarrass him, and it doesn't allow him to redeem himself," Foege said. "By doing this privately, he has a chance to do the right thing."

Here's hoping that the letter's becoming public will instead push Redfield to try to save the CDC from Trump. It's desperately needed.

Here's a copy of the full letter:


[USA Today / WaPo / Carter Center]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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