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Emory’s Dr. Carlos del Rio: ‘We failed in our pandemic response’

Panel moderator Ann Cramer talks with Dr. Carlos del Rio (seated) before the event as Joe Bankoff listens in (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

One of Georgia’s leading scientists – Dr. Carlos del Rio – declared the nation had failed in how it responded to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. del Rio, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University’s School of Medicine and executive associate dean for Emory at Grady Health Systems, made his remarks on Monday as part of a panel discussion held after Georgia Tech awarded Dr. Anthony Fauci with the 2021 Ivan Allen Jr. Prize in Social Courage.

Dr. Carlos del Rio

“First thing, candidly, is we have to acknowledge that we failed in our response to this pandemic,” Dr. del Rio said at the outset. “Yet, we thought we were prepared. We had pandemic plans.”

A global security index had even ranked the United States as No. 1 in being prepared for a pandemic – but that was before COVID-19 had emerged as the biggest global health threat in more than a century.

Despite its No. 1 ranking, Dr. del Rio bluntly said the United States ended up being the “country with the biggest failure rate.”

He based that statement on the fact “we represent less than 5 percent of world’s population” but we’re averaging 23 percent to 24 percent of all COVID deaths.

“So, obviously we have to recognize that we failed,” Dr. del Rio said. “Why did we fail? What parts were we not able to prepare for? The No. 1 failure in our country was a failure of leadership. And leadership is critical in a time of crisis. Everybody in the business community knows that. And if we don’t have the right leader in a time of crisis then you’re going to fail.”

Dr. Carlos del Rio was part of a panel discussion at Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen Jr. Prize in Social Courage event on March 15 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The second reason the United States failed, according to Dr. del Rio, was that the country had “weakened” the very institutions that it needed to respond to a pandemic – citing specifically the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration.

Dr. del Rio said that “sidelining the CDC” was particularly egregious “because it was, first of all, it’s personal. It’s here in Atlanta. It’s part of our community. It is our friends, our neighbors, the people that we know have the expertise. We know the value the CDC has as a global health agency, and to see CDC essentially moved out of the response early on, in my mind, was clearly one of the greatest mistakes we made.”

The third reason we failed, according to Dr. del Rio, was that we did not let science rule the day.

“We let politics guide response,” Dr. del Rio said added that public health has always had political overtones. “But it has never been partisan. In my wildest dreams, I would have never dreamt that a face mask will become a political symbol.”

He also is disturbed by recent polls that show there’s greater vaccine hesitancy among Republicans than Democrats.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Dr. del Rio said. By making public health so political, it has “weakened our response.”

Then Dr. del Rio said the nation’s public health care system needs to be revamped.

Panel moderator Ann Cramer talks with Dr. Carlos del Rio (seated) before the event at the First Auditorium as Joe Bankoff listens in (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“Our public health system is typically run at the state level,” Dr. del Rio said. “You cannot run a pandemic response on a state level., It’s like trying to run a war. You will not go to war and tell every state to recruit your own soldiers… We would have never won the second World War by saying here is the Georgia army, here’s the Massachusetts army. That’s not how a country responds. Having had 50 different response plans throughout this pandemic I think was a major problem.”

Case in point, Dr. del Rio pointed to how the vaccination distribution plans varies from state to state.

“There’s no national plan,” Dr. del Rio said. “At some point in time we’re going to have to look at those issues, because if not, we will fail again with the next pandemic.”

Later in the program, Dr. del Rio did mention some bright spots. The pandemic showed the “value and triumph” of science and research. That investment paid off in the ability to develop COVID vaccines in record time.

Health care workers also gave people reason to home by their willingness to put themselves at risk while treating the sick.

Moderator Ann Cramer checks out the stage with Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera and his wife, Beth Cabrera, before the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize in Social Courage event on March 15 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“People could have walked away and say, ‘Look I don’t need this job I don’t need to put myself at risk. I can go somewhere else,’” said Dr. del Rio, adding that instead public health workers showed their compassion. “We need to think about how we capitalize on that. How do we get away from our individualistic selves and really move into more of a community approach?”

Lastly, Dr. del Rio said the pandemic exposed the health disparities and social inequities in our society – including housing, education and food access.

“There are many things that have nothing to do with health care, but have everything to do with health,” Dr. del Rio said.

Addressing those issue “potentially will be a positive, bright side of this pandemic,” he said. “We may eventually come out of this really taking equity and justice as a much more serious thing than we’ve done up to now.”

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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  1. Mim Eisenberg March 17, 2021 9:31 am

    Dr. del Rio neglects to mention that the government failures must be laid at the feet of the former president, who got rid of Obama’s pandemic response team right at the beginning of his woebegone administration and whose actions, inactions and gaslighting (lying) about COVID-19, plus his unwillingness to mandate nationwide controls and to set in place the Defense Production Act to provide PPE and vaccines and their distribution across the country were why the U.S., with 4% of the world’s population, had 23% of the world’s COVID-19 cases. In less than two months, President Biden has reversed many of those actions and set in place a nationwide vaccination program and is pleading with his countrymen and -women to follow the CDC guidelines, even after getting vaccinated, to prevent the spread of COVID. Until anywhere from 75 to 90% of the nation has been vaccinated, people will continue to get infected and not only spread the virus but allow variants to flourish. Put the blame where blame is due, and give credit to the new president for his immediate actions to hasten getting COVID under control.Report

    1. Jim Bob March 18, 2021 4:04 pm

      I am not sure if your statistics can be taken at face value. While you claim we had 23% of covid cases, other countries did not do a fraction of the testing that the USA did. You also must acknowledge that China has a track record of lying when it makes themselves look better. I would be willing to bet there was a massive cover up of their real deaths and infections. I admit there were failures on the part of the federal government. The great success was putting together a vaccine in such a short period of time.Report


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