July 14, 2008 The Pump Handle 3Comment

When was the last time the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agreed on a matter related to workers’ health and safety?  That’s exactly what has happened since the formal announcement about CDC Director Julie Gerberding’s decision not to reappoint NIOSH Director John Howard.  Members of Congress are demanding meetings, stakeholders are sending letters, and the NYTimes Editorial Board called it “A Pointless Departure”.  In fact, I’ve been searching to find anyone who agrees with Gerberding’s decision.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Marc Freedman said:

“Frankly we would have thought this was a no-brainer.  He [John Howrad] comes in with the business community in various forms, the safety community in various forms, the Democrats and even labor — on a silver platter.  So I’m rather struck by their unwillingness.  But it wasn’t ‘they’ in general.  It was Dr. Gerberding.”

A letter from members of the New York congressional delegation to Gerberding and Leavitt says they:

“are appalled by your decision to fire Dr. Howard, demand that you explain your decision, and urge you to reappoint him immediately.”

“Dr. Howard has received near-universal praise from industry and labor interests alike for his service protecting American workers. He has proven to be an outstanding public servant, and political ideology should not drive him out.”

Governor of New York David Patterson wrote to President Bush urging him to intervene and reappoint John Howard, who has also been serving as the federal coordinator of the health program for 9/11 workers.

So, if everybody is for John Howard, why is Gerberding against him?  Could her decision be influenced by ego, politics, personal aspirations or just plain friction? 

Recall, it was only 4 years ago that Gerberding unleashed her reorganization plan for CDC which would have essentially dismantled NIOSH by creating a few large “Coordinating Centers.”  Pressure from worker advocates and researchers, the public health community, labor and business groups, and former NIOSH directors managed to partially quash the plan.  I’m sure Gerberding was not p.o’d that her big plan to “transform CDC” ran into obstacles.  That pesky NIOSH and supporters of worker-specific health and safety research.  Ruining my master plan.

This org chart shows the current structure with the six “Coordinating Centers” and NIOSH.  That pesky NIOSH—foiling my reorganizational transformationing.

One can’t help but wonder whether Gerberding’s desire to eliminate NIOSH as a separate agency will be realized now that this small institute is missing its leader.  Humph.  I won’t be foiled again.

3 thoughts on “CDC’s Gerberding Lambasted for Firing NIOSH Director

  1. I wonder if the decision-making chain of command on this leads to Cheney’s office. Since the secret energy task force meetings with the oil and coal industry in March 2001 he has micromanaged environmental and occupational safety issues. Just last week it was learned that his office cut the public health effects of global warming from Gerberding’s congressional testimony last October. She didn’t seem to mind. If Cheney would go to such great lengths to censor global warming news if didn’t like, couldn’t his hand also be at work in Howard’s firing?

  2. This is an interesting turn of events given that Gerberding has been trying to rehabilitate her reputation, of late. She will need to resign at the end of this administration and it would be unusual for someone with her length of tenure to be reappointed and she would certainly not be reappointed by a Democrat. Gerberding has no place to go, at this point. The CDC disapora has gusranteed that she could not get the kind of first class academic or think tank berth that usually goes to someone like this, despite her efforts at rehab. I think she purposely made statements on global warming that she knew the Administration would censor so that she could get some favorable press.

    She might be able to get a job in industry. For awhile, there was talk of her setting up some public health management non-profit, but I doubt that anyone short of the most whorish drug companies would want to fund such a thing. The defacto firing of Howard may be a parting shot–he sounds like the kind of person who normally would have left with the rest of us, but instead he soldiered on. Installing even an interim person will put NIOSH into some degree of disarray, as it will probably be a couple years before a permanent replacement under a new CDC Director would be put in place. The HIV/STD/TB center went through years of interim management and it didn’t help, esp. given the rudderless management of the HIV component and the virtual takeover of its global program by PEPFAR. NIOSH could face similar kinds of problems under interim management.

  3. Why the surprise about Gerberding axing Howard? This fits into a long pattern of her anti-worker health and safety behavior. Gerberding blocked the purchase of safer needlesticks for healthcare workers when she worked at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). At the same time she was blocking safer needles, she was getting drug company money to test AZT as a post exposure treatment. Turns out she actually needed healthcare workers to get stuck (200) to get a statistically significant sample. The work she published on AZT propelled her to national prominence. With the help of John Howard who was willing to cross words with her when he was head of CalOSHA, workers at SFGH were eventually successful in getting safer needles into SFGH, but not until after at least five nurses contracted HIV from occupational needlesticks. During this period while she was at SFGH and funded by the taxpayers of the City and County of San Francisco, Gerberding also found time to serve as a $400 per hour expert witness to defend Becton Dickinson against a nurse in New Jersey dying from an HIV infected needlestick injury. In her deposition, she called safer needles “the jargon of the day” and said that nurses who got stuck were “careless.”

    Later at CDC, Gerberding worked to block the passage of the federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act while directing the Hospital Infections Branch. Appointed Director her first act was to launch the misguided smallpox vaccination program, where she declared that we could not wait to develop a compensation program for healthcare workers who volunteered and got sick or died (at least two did die). During a weaponized plague exercise, under her tenure, CDC produced factsheets for healthcare workers recommending flimsy and leaking surgical masks include of tight fitting respirators while fire fighters were to be issued Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). And at the behest of the American Hospital Association while at CDC, she found the time to work surreptitiously with US Congressman (now Senator) Wicker (R-MS) to help him lobby fellow Republicans to block annual respirator fit test requirements to protect health care workers, fire fighters, and other emergency responders from TB and by proxy other airborne biological threats ranging from SARS to weapons of mass destruction to pandemic flu.

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