Bonkers federal podcast downplays COVID-19, blasts health restrictions

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Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Enlarge / Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC.

In a stunning podcast released by the Department of Health and Human Services, two top officials at the department repeatedly downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, railed against mitigation efforts, called closures of in-person schooling “nonsense,” and said US journalists do not “[give] a damn about public health information.”

The podcast, released on the HHS website September 11, is part of a series hosted by Michael Caputo, who currently holds the title of HHS assistant secretary of public affairs. Though Caputo has no background in health care, the White House installed him in the department in April—a move reportedly made to assert more White House control over HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Caputo is a longtime Trump loyalist and former campaign official. He got his start as a protégé of Roger Stone and later worked as a Moscow-based advisor to Boris Yeltsin and did public relations work for Vladimir Putin.

Learning curve

Caputo has most recently made headlines for working to interfere with and alter scientific reports on COVID-19 prepared by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The meddling was intended to make reports more in line with messaging from Trump, who has admitted to downplaying the pandemic. Caputo also raised eyebrows with a Facebook live video, reported by The New York Times Monday, in which, without evidence, he accused government scientists of engaging in “sedition” and claimed that the CDC is harboring a “resistance unit.” He also spoke of long “shadows” in his DC apartment and said left-wing “hit-squads” were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.

With his slightly more upbeat HHS podcast series, The Learning Curve, Caputo spotlights the work of HHS officials so that listeners can “learn from the people that I am learning from.” In the September 11 episode—in which he notably calls government scientists “an incredible group of experts”—Caputo spoke with Elinore McCance-Katz, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is a branch of the HHS.

McCance-Katz, who Caputo described as “one of the angels of the department,” is a psychiatrist and holds a PhD from Yale in infectious disease epidemiology. She was the chief medical officer of SAMHSA during the Obama administration but resigned after two years saying SAMHSA wasn’t doing enough to treat people with serious mental illnesses. The Trump administration reappointed her to the agency in 2017, and she has since publicly aligned with some of Trump’s views on the pandemic.

In the podcast, Caputo and McCance-Katz’s conversation began unremarkably, with the two discussing the opioid epidemic and related HHS efforts. But about 20 minutes into the hour-long episode, the discussion shifted to criticism of stay-at-home orders and other mitigation efforts. Both Caputo and McCance-Katz suggested that stay-at-home orders were unnecessary and only exacerbated the mental toll the pandemic is having on Americans.

“Nonsense”

Though public health experts have long noted that lockdowns are indeed draconian, they also acknowledge that they’ve been necessary to curb the insidious spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Such movement restrictions and distancing measures have largely been effective at controlling outbreaks in countries worldwide—apart from in the United States, of course, which has failed spectacularly at managing the deadly pandemic.

Still, Caputo and McCance-Katz dismissed the mitigation strategy as one promoted only by rich people, who can easily manage to stay at home. “The people who say ‘It’s safer at home. Stay at home,’ tend to be people who are fairly affluent,” Caputo said.

“Yeah, it probably is safer at home for them,” McCance-Katz responded. “They go to some nice house, some big house with all the amenities.”

They went on to suggest that activities such as going to a football game or a movie theater are mainly enjoyed by people of the “lower strata of our economic system” and that is why those activities have been restricted. Meanwhile, “wealthy people with the house on the beach, they’re watching Netflix and every other streaming platform,” Caputo added. People who are essential workers, such as those who work in hospitals, “don’t have access to these subscriptions,” he said.

“And I’ll just, I’m going to say it,” McCance-Katz said soon after. “We shut down the entire country before the virus, in my opinion, had a chance to get around the entire country. Why?” The stay-at-home orders are akin to using “a sledge hammer when I think we needed a scalpel,” she added.

Caputo agreed, saying, “No doubt. And you know what? To me, the damage is done.”

Death and despair

The two go on to discuss the pandemic’s impact on children, expressing disgust that in-person learning has been suspended in many places to try to curb disease spread. “What is this nonsense that somehow it’s unsafe to return to school?” McCance-Katz asked after noting that most children infected with SARS-CoV-2 do not get seriously ill. Though moments before they noted that people in the “lower strata” often live in more crowded, multigenerational homes, they failed to discuss the risk of children passing on the virus to family members and other people in their communities.

Caputo—who, as noted, has been interfering with CDC’s scientific reports on the pandemic—moved on to blaming the US media for being “dishonest” and warping the public’s perception of the virus. He also blamed the media for “knocking the president” and “trampling” optimism over COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. “I don't think the United States media gives a damn about public health information,” he said.

“I don’t, too,” McCance-Katz responded.

Toward the end, McCance-Katz offered a lighter outlook. Though she speculated that “thousands” might die from pandemic-related despair, she argued that Americans are resilient and that “the despair will abate.”

Caputo, however, ended on a darker, confusing note. Though he had spent much of the episode downplaying the pandemic, he concluded by emphasizing the seriousness of COVID-19 and its death toll. “I find myself every morning, the first time I use my voice, I’m talking about death,” he said.

“We hear reports in our meetings… These people [with COVID-19], they drown in their own fluids,” he said. “And the doctors have told me that it is the most profound fear that one can have. And that the looks on their faces when they’re dying is just something that they can't forget. These doctors can’t forget it. And the way—and I talk—this is the first thing I talk about in the morning.”

According to a fresh report by Politico, Caputo called an emergency staff meeting Tuesday to apologize to HHS employees about his comments on the Facebook live video, in which he claimed the CDC was harboring a “resistance unit.” Some HHS staff told Politico they got the impression Caputo planned to step down.

To date, the United States has reported more than 6.5 million cases of COVID-19 and over 195,000 deaths.

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