“You had one job!” is the punchline on a popular Internet meme involving organizational screw-ups. Now critics are saying something similar about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response the agency’s handling of the Ebola outbreak. Unfortunately, it’s not true. While we’d be better off if the CDC only had one job — you know, controlling disease— the CDC has taken on all sorts of jobs unrelated to that task. Jobs that seem to have distracted its management and led to a performance that even the establishment calls “rocky.” Going forward, we need to learn this lesson, for the CDC, for other agencies, and for the government as a whole.
Ebola, as fans of The Hot Zone know, is nothing new, and neither are worries about it spreading beyond its usual range. And disease control experts have long known that the key to stopping it is finding people who were exposed, tracing their contacts, and keeping them under observation until they are past the disease’s incubation period, and keeping anyone actively contagious under quarantine until they have died or recovered.