Political appointees demand ability to rewrite CDC case reports

This site is reader-supported. When you click through links on our site, we may be compensated.

Image of a man holding his hand to his ear in order to hear better.
Enlarge / Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), listens during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus. Redfield may be finding himself trapped between scientists and political appointees.

Political appointees in the Department of Health and Human services are objecting to reports on the COVID-19 pandemic from the Centers for Disease Control, and are trying to exercise editorial control of future reports. That's the bottom line of an extensive report from Politico that was based on both internal emails and interviews with people in the organization. The problems apparently stem from the fact-based reports from the CDC running counter to the Trump administration's preferred narrative about the spread of the pandemic and the appropriate public health responses.

The CDC documents at issue are termed Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which provide rapid summaries of the state of our knowledge about public health issues. Typically, they're the product of a CDC-backed investigation into a known issue; in the past, they've focused on things like outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. While they don't have the weight of peer-reviewed literature, they're widely considered to be scientifically reliable, and their rapid publication makes them a valuable resource for public health officials.

It's easy to see how the reports' accurate information could be viewed as counter to the preferred message of the Trump administration. Trump has made reopening schools a centerpiece of his pandemic policy, but CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly reports have described how SARS-CoV-2 can spread rapidly in a school-aged population, how young children can bring the disease home and pass it on to adults, and how children can suffer severe complications from the disease.

Rather than recognizing that facts aren't supportive of their policies, the administration's political appointees have apparently decided that the CDC is not presenting the facts because it's trying to undercut Trump. Politico quotes Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official now at Health and Human Services, as saying “Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic—not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC.” One of the emails obtained for the story, written by another political appointee, says “CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration,” and another accused the reports of being used to “hurt the president.”

Paul Alexander, one of the few involved who has an epidemiology background, complained in another email, “CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school re-opening… Very misleading by CDC and shame on them.” Yet that's exactly what appears to be happening in many locations, suggesting the CDC has a better grasp on the issue than Alexander does.

The political staff has attempted to block the release of some of the Morbidity and Mortality reports, and demanded the ability to review and edit all future reports. (Alexander, apparently unironically, suggested he needed to ensure the reports were “fair and balanced.”) While all of the planned reports were eventually published, Politico indicates that the non-scientific staff are gaining increased oversight of the reports prior to their publication.

              <div id="action_button_container"></div>

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.