Invoking Jewish experience, deputy CDC head says fear the virus, not the foreign
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Interview'The virus does not discriminate'

Invoking Jewish experience, deputy CDC head says fear the virus, not the foreign

Dr. Anne Schuchat says Jews know what it’s like to be stigmatized, as she pushes for tight-knit yet socially distant response to COVID-19, predicting that battle may take years

  • US President Donald Trump listens as Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, February 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
    US President Donald Trump listens as Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, February 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
  • National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, second from left, accompanied by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, left, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dr. Robert Kadlec, second from right, and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, right, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Hearing on the coronavirus on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
    National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, second from left, accompanied by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, left, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dr. Robert Kadlec, second from right, and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, right, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Hearing on the coronavirus on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
  • Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Center for Disease Control, right, speaks about the Zika virus, accompanied by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH/NIAID, Monday, April 11, 2016, during a news briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
    Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Center for Disease Control, right, speaks about the Zika virus, accompanied by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH/NIAID, Monday, April 11, 2016, during a news briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, center, accompanied by National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, right, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the coronavirus on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, center, accompanied by National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, right, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the coronavirus on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
  • CDC Principal Deputy Secretary Dr. Anne Schuchat is sworn in as she appears before a House Oversight subcommittee hearing on lung disease and e-cigarettes on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
    CDC Principal Deputy Secretary Dr. Anne Schuchat is sworn in as she appears before a House Oversight subcommittee hearing on lung disease and e-cigarettes on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In over 30 years working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anne Schuchat has helped with emergency responses from SARS to H1N1. But Schuchat, an American Jew who is the principal deputy director of the CDC, sees something unprecedented in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“Clearly this is the largest response I’ve ever been involved with,” Schuchat told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

The US is grappling with 85,356 total cases and 1,246 deaths, as of March 27, according to the CDC.

In Schuchat’s role with the CDC, she helps the agency coordinate the response to COVID-19 at the federal, state and local levels. This includes prevention and response, emergency management, research and development, the international arena and homeland security, she said.

At the federal level, the CDC works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and Human Services or HHS, which Schuchat likened to the Israeli Health Ministry. CDC Director Robert R. Redfield is a member of the White House task force being led from the office of Vice President Mike Pence.

Schuchat said the CDC provides “strong support” including financial, material and technical assistance to state governments, who essentially lead the decision making.

President Donald Trump listens as Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, February 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“We give each state the decision or authority,” she said. “Coordination has been critical and has continued to be a priority.”

Schuchat calls the CDC “a very unique organization in the US.” It’s one that she has twice led as acting director during the past decade, from January to July 2017 and from February to March 2018. She is also a retired rear admiral.

“Whether as acting director of the CDC or my permanent job as principal deputy director, I’m really proud of the staff, the experts we have, the way we work together as a team,” she said, listing past collaborations against the Zika virus and Ebola as well as battles against influenza and, of course, COVID-19. Throughout, she and her team “work together, protect our nation,” she said.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Center for Disease Control, right, speaks about the Zika virus, accompanied by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH/NIAID, Monday, April 11, 2016, during a news briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Schuchat described her Jewish background as having “certainly influenced my passion for education.” Growing up, she said, her “family roots were very supportive.”

Her childhood dream was to be a physician. “I initially wanted to be a primary care doctor with one-at-a-time patients,” she recalled.

Yet she joined the CDC in 1988 and participated in an initiative called the Disease Detective program, which consists of a two-year training period. Years later, Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet would consult with Schuchat about this program during character development for the 2011 film “Contagion,” in which Winslet played a CDC epidemiologist assisting with the emergency response to a frightening new pandemic.

“I said at the time that [the film] was actually realistic,” Schuchat said, adding that it “unfortunately” parallels COVID-19 today.

CDC Principal Deputy Secretary Dr. Anne Schuchat is sworn in as she appears before a House Oversight subcommittee hearing on lung disease and e-cigarettes on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In Schuchat’s real-life career, she served as chief of the CDC’s Respiratory Diseases Branch from 1998 to 2005, then headed its National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases from 2006 to 2015. She has held her current position since September 2015.

Her work has taken her across the globe. She was in Beijing during the multi-country response to SARS in 2003, while her more recent efforts against Ebola have taken her to Sierra Leone.

Yet the COVID-19 response surpasses everything.

“I think because it’s a very new virus causing the pandemic,” Schuchat said. “We don’t have specific drugs, a vaccine.” Adding to the difficulty, she said, “We’ve seen the virus can spread before you have symptoms. It’s quite challenging to be part of the CDC family of responders during this period.”

Yet, she said, “There’s a role everyone can play to tackle it.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, center, accompanied by National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, right, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the coronavirus on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Schuchat explained that “in the US we can reduce the spread by protecting other people, the elderly. Seniors may be at greatest risk of dying.” However, she said, “Young people can get a life-threatening disease as well.”

“We can bond together to help everyone,” she said.

And, she noted, “It’s important to remember to avoid stigma. In our Jewish tradition, there’s much in our history about the fear of the foreigner. We’ve often been the foreigner in a lot of places, Jews in the Diaspora.”

“It’s important in the pandemic to avoid stigmatizing any one group — travelers, immigrants, some populations in our community, anyone in this situation. The virus does not discriminate. We need to work together to tackle it,” she said.

She urged people, “Help your neighbors. Look out for the elderly in your community. Avoid large groups. Wash your hands frequently. Stay home if ill. Follow local authorities.” She said that at the CDC, “We do remind people to avoid lots of physical or social contact,” and recommended a six-foot distance between people.

Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat, director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the re-emergence of vaccine-preventable diseases. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Some states have enacted stay-at-home policies that affect religious services, with worship being done online as a result. Asked about Jewish religious practices such as kissing the mezuzah or the Torah scrolls when being paraded around a synagogue, Schuchat said, “We think [COVID-19] can be spread through respiratory droplets,” such as from coughing or sneezing. Another potential source of transfer is “through surfaces,” she said, including “commonly-touched surfaces.” She advised people who have been in contact with commonly-touched surfaces to wash their hands.

Schuchat notes that hand-washing is a practice in Judaism. In her last name, which means “kosher butcher,” she sees echoes of the Jewish laws of handling meat.

“I always thought many of these customs have made quite a bit of sense in terms of public health or hygiene,” she said. “To some extent, dietary rules, rules of handling [meat], butchering, are related to food safety. How we got all these customs, it’s hard for me to say. There’s a fascination with hand-washing in a number of religions. It’s a good practice. We try to make sure it’s more widespread in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Schuchat and the CDC are prepared to fight COVID-19 for as long as it takes.

“This is a very serious pandemic,” she said. “I think we are going to be battling for some time. Certainly months. Possibly years.”

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