Experts

Tom Frieden

Senior Fellow for Global Health

About the Expert

Expert Bio

Dr. Tom Frieden is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is also the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, which aims to prevent both epidemics and cardiovascular disease and was launched in September 2017 for an initial five-year initiative with $225 million in funding. Dr. Frieden is a national and global leader who has spent his career working to improve health in the United States and around the world. He is one of the world’s top experts in prevention of cardiovascular disease, tobacco control, tuberculosis, and health policy and administration.

Dr. Frieden served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and commissioner of the New York City Health Department. His work established New York City’s tuberculosis control program and overall health department as models for the world. He created effective programs in India, and improved morale, effectiveness, and impact at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Frieden’s influential publications have explained what actions are needed to improve health, how to implement them, and why they work.

Dr. Frieden is a physician with advanced training in internal medicine, infectious disease, public health, and epidemiology. Over the past twenty five years, Dr. Frieden has led and launched numerous initiatives and campaigns. As director of the CDC, Dr. Frieden led the work that ended the Ebola epidemic and launched an initiative that will prevent 500,000 heart attacks and strokes. He sounded the alarm and accelerated progress addressing the epidemic of opioid use, and increased effective action on the front lines to find and fight winnable battles that protect and improve health in the United States and around the world. As the first director of international health programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies, Dr. Frieden designed and launched the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, a program that has prevented more than 35 million deaths around the world. As health commissioner, he led health transformation in New York City, increasing life expectancy by three years, preventing more than 100,000 deaths from smoking, and spurring national and global action on, among other areas, better epidemiologic understanding and control of public health problems including HIV, tobacco control, nutrition, as well as the integration of health care and public health. He also reorganized the department to increase financial sustainability and optimize health impact.

Earlier in his career, Dr. Frieden guided the Indian tuberculosis control program to improve diagnosis and treatment rapidly, creating the largest and most rapidly expanding effective tuberculosis control program in the world that has saved at least 3 million lives. He led control of the largest outbreak of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis ever to occur in the United States by creating a tuberculosis control program that is a model for the United States and the world. This program emphasized intensive community outreach, clinical excellence, effective integration of health care and public health, ongoing analysis and publication of key epidemiological and program aspects, and rigorous accountability.

Dr. Frieden earned his medical and public health degrees from Columbia University, completed an infectious disease fellowship at Yale University, and was an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at CDC.

COVID-19

On January 22, Dr. Frieden wrote about the need to learn more about the pathogen, a summary of some of the first scientific articles, the need for more investment in global preparedness, broader reflections on politics and epidemics, and analysis of the implications of extensive spread in one hospital in Wuhan. At the request of China CDC, he outlined five components that contribute to the U.S. CDC’s effectiveness in keeping the United States and world safer. He also published this analysis of reasons for both optimism and pessimism, as well as some next steps in either case. By February 25, it was clear that the virus would become a pandemic, and he outlined the next steps we need to take to reduce the health, social, and economic harms it will cause. On February 28, along with colleagues from Resolve to Save Lives, he analyzed how to assess the severity of the pandemic and how to save the most lives and they repeated this analysis stratified by age group with updated information on March 10. On March 2, Dr. Frieden called on Congress to protect the United States by including funding for global health protection in the supplemental appropriation. He outlined nineteen critical data gaps we need to fill to respond effectively to COVID-19. By March 8, it was clear that COVID-19 would hit the United States hard and Dr. Frieden called for restricting visits to nursing homes and a series of other measures to be taken by everyone, medically vulnerable people, health care systems, and the government. As the pandemic hit the United States, he urged ten steps to prevent what could be a large disaster taking as many as one million lives. Dr. Frieden also reflected on lessons from the Ebola epidemic to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Frieden clarified the differences between flu and COVID-19, and noted that although too many people will die from this, it, too, will pass. As the pandemic spread in the United States, on March 16, he wrote of seven potentially deadly errors in the response. Dr. Frieden outlined some of the most important questions about the virus and how we might answer them. As a New Yorker, when COVID-19 began to spread widely in the city, he urged residents to protect themselves and others and looked forward to some positive results the tragic pandemic might bring. Dr. Shahpar and Dr. Frieden summarized the reasons for concern about the possibility that the need for intensive care could far outstrip supply in the United States. Facing the acceleration phase of the pandemic in New York City and learning from experiences around the world, Dr. Frieden suggested a war strategy to confront the virus, updating the strategy published one month earlier. Thinking about how to build resilience, and in the face of confusion about what might help protect people, he reviewed the evidence that suggests that adequate Vitamin D stores may help and, more broadly, how we need to better prevent and control heart disease to increase individual and community resilience. Alarmed by haphazard and misinformed approaches to resuming social activity, he outlined a strategy to restart activities as soon and safely as possible, turning the faucet slowly rather than opening the floodgates. Based on work fighting epidemics in the United States and globally, he recommended ways to improve management of the U.S. response. Recalling Surgeon General Koop’s letter to every household in the United States in 1988, he drafted a letter that could be sent—along with a digital thermometer—to every household. On March 31, he wrote to clear the air on coronavirus testing and outline a way forward that puts testing in the context of comprehensive pandemic control. He also joined his long-time colleague Dr. Sam Dooley in providing practical tips for the public to stay safer and wrote about simple steps that everyone can take to reduce risk. Following a media briefing and press statement on the topic, Dr. Frieden outlined the way forward to reopen society as soon and safely as possible without risking explosive spread of the virus. On April 12, he outlined how, in this public health emergency, CDC and public health must guide us forward. On April 17, joined by Dr. Sam Dooley, he explained what contact tracing is, and why it’s so important. Along with the Resolve to Save Lives team, he published their proposal, BoxItIn, to box the coronavirus in through testing, isolation, contact tracing, and quarantine so that people can come out again as soon and safely as possible. On April 27, Dr. Frieden argued for putting a stake through the heart of public health’s Eeyore Complex and Drs. Frieden and Shahpar outlined some simple truths about testing. On May 5, Dr. Frieden and Dr. Kelly Henning explain how contact tracing is an essential component to combat COVID-19. On May 13, Dr. Frieden and Dr. Rajeev Cherukupalli noted that governments must focus on public health and saving lives in order to restore economic activity. He also joined Dr. Farzad Mostashari to explain how tech can support the fight against COVID-19 by support our existing public health infrastructure. On May 26, Dr. Frieden outlined five ways to prevent deaths from both coronavirus infection and the disruption the pandemic is causing. On June 4, Dr. Frieden noted although the CDC made significant errors, it was undermined by the Donald J. Trump administration's response, and that blaming it for failure in fighting the pandemic is like “blaming a person who was bound and encased in concrete for failing to swim.” On June 11, he summarized some of the most egregious errors of amateur epidemiology and what we should pay attention to in order to control COVID-19 and restore our economy. On July 9, Dr. Frieden, along with former U.S. Secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings, detailed eight steps that we must take in order to safely reopen schools this fall, and protect students, staff, faculties, and communities. On July 14, Dr. Frieden, along with other former CDC Directors Jeffrey Koplan, David Satcher, and Richard Besser, expressed frustration that the CDC was not front and center in fighting COVID-19, and how this is hindering U.S. progress in the fight against the virus. In an OpEd for the New York Times, Tom and Dr. Cyrus Shahpar describe how during the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis, with coordination from the National Security Council at the White House, CDC used data to focus on the most important interventions that stopped the epidemic. Dr. Frieden outlined three key hurdles to COVID-19 vaccination. Drs. Dooley and Frieden outlined, on August 3, how to keep health care workers safer from COVID-19 with a systematic, comprehensive approach. On August 21, Dr. Frieden outlined the perils and promise of immunity, based on what we are learning. Vaccination will not be quick or easy, but it is likely to be feasible if we develop a vaccine that is effective, safe, trusted, and widely available. Resolve to Save Lives released guidance on why and how to increase mask use, which Dr. Frieden outlined in the Washington Post. On September 14, Dr. Frieden discussed the importance of wearing a mask, and how mask-wearing can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and save lives. He also outlined the best types of masks to wear, and why. On October 2, Dr. Frieden expressed sympathy for the president and first lady on their COVID-19 diagnosis. He went on to explain how their diagnosis is a sobering reminder that anyone can be affected by this disease, and we all must be vigilant in our continued fight against this virus. On October 18, in the Washington Post, Dr. Frieden outlined why pursuing herd immunity is a dangerous, deadly mistake that would lead to at least another 500,000 deaths in the United States of people who did not have to die. Also on October 18 on Fox News, Dr. Frieden explained that the only way to protect the vulnerable is to have less, not more spread of the virus.