cdc official
Single polio case in New York may be 'very, very tip of the iceberg,' CDC official says
02:16 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

This summer, when the shocking news emerged that there was a case of polio in New York, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immediately turned to Shoshana Bernstein.

The agency urgently needed to increase polio vaccination rates in Rockland County, New York. And while Bernstein is neither a doctor nor a public health official, she is exactly what the CDC was looking for: a local vaccine educator who’s part of the Orthodox Jewish community, one of several groups that has a low vaccination rate.

Over the next few months, Bernstein spent hours and hours in meetings with CDC officials, including agency Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and then more time preparing presentations on education campaign ideas.

She wasn’t paid a penny for her time.

“If I won the lottery, I’d do this for free because I have a passion for public health,” Bernstein said. “But I can’t. I had to put other projects on hold to do pro bono work for the CDC. I have a family with bills to pay. I had to tell them, ‘I can’t keep doing this if you don’t pay me.’ ”

It’s an old problem for the CDC: Despite having a multibillion-dollar budget, the agency doesn’t have authority from Congress to hire consultants in a timely way when an urgent situation arises.

Walensky plans to appeal to Congress to allow for flexibility to do this kind of hiring in a crisis, similar to the authority vested in some other federal agencies.

“I want to be very clear that [we] are not asking for a blank-slate ability to release resources. What we’re saying is, in certain situations, we need to be nimble and act urgently in culturally sensitive ways that we don’t currently have the capacity to do,” Walensky said.

She told CNN that the agency’s “inability to move quickly and nimbly when necessary” has been “frustrating.”

“We don’t have the ability in even urgent or emergent times to say ‘we need to move quickly here,’ ” Walensky said. “We need to provide resources to people who can actually do the work [to] quickly get that message out.”

Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC director from 2009 to 2017, said he feels Walensky’s pain. He experienced the same inflexibility during the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

“If we want CDC to get better at fighting diseases, we need to stop tying their hands behind their back,” he said. “This is the kind of torment of working within the government system.”

Duvi, Rochel and Super V

Their names are Duvi and Rochel, and they could be the key to stopping polio in its tracks in the US.

Over the years, some members of the Orthodox Jewish community have fallen prey to well-orchestrated campaigns of vaccine lies. To counter that, Bernstein is working on several projects, including an animated video with brother and sister Duvi and Rochel and a vaccine hero named Super V.

The characters sprinkle their conversations with Yiddish expressions. Duvi wears a yarmulke, or head covering, and Rochel wears a long-sleeved dress, clothing typical for their community. Singing to the tune of a popular Jewish song, Duvi gives thanks to “Hashem” – or God – for vaccines.

Vaccine educator Shoshana Bernstein recommended the CDC use versions of cartoon characters to help teach more people about vaccines.

The project is funded by the New Jersey Department of Health, and Bernstein proposed to the CDC that versions of the cartoon could be made for other communities. She also told the CDC about a publication she wrote called “Tzim Gezint” – “To Your Health” – which helped increase awareness of the measles vaccine during an outbreak of the virus in 2018.

Walensky said the CDC liked Bernstein’s ideas but couldn’t pay her.