Shutdown closes CDC, disrupts flu tracking

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is entering its third day of closure – and without it, important information isn’t getting out to the public just as flu season begins.

The CDC provides weekly updates of statistics that include when, where and what kind of flu strains are breaking out across the country. Those are vital numbers to local health officials, who are trying to track outbreaks in the Midwest and how to address them.

Monday, as flu clinics opened across the city, experts began looking elsewhere for that information.

“Not only watch the CDC website, but there’s also a flu watch on the World Health Organization website, so if anyone wanted to find info on that they could just do a quick search,” said Bridget Pfaff, an infection control specialist at Gundersen Health Systems.

Patients like Larry Vitcenda were showing up at Gundersen’s flu clinic Monday – and like Vitcenda, most were probably more worried about getting their yearly vaccine shot instead of thinking about how the federal government shutdown could affect flu season. But Gundersen’s health officials were thinking about it.

“Infection control isn’t a 9-5, Monday-through-Friday job,” Pfaff said.


For workers at the CDC, it’s not a job at all right now – during the federal shutdown, two-thirds of the center’s 13,000 employees have been furloughed. Flu tracking isn’t the only thing being put on hold at the CDC – other infectious diseases, like salmonella or the measles, aren’t being monitored, either.    

Regional officials are taking the responsibility to cover any gaps in monitoring caused by the CDC closure. They’re keeping tabs on any area flu outbreaks, and local hospitals are relying on that data instead.

“A lot of work isn’t happening at CDC level, but it’s happening right here at the local and state level,” Pfaff said. “I’ve got great relationships with some local and state individuals, so those are the relationships you utilize and enhance at a time like this.”

Larry walked out of the clinic Monday with a fresh band-aid and a renewed defense against the flu, while experts here in La Crosse were picking up the CDC’s slack and continuing the fight against flu season.

“Infectious diseases don’t stop because the time of the clock, or because CDC is present or not present,” Pfaff said.