Story at a glance

  • E-mails from CDC and officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) imply government officials attempted to control the phrasing in CDC documents.
  • This is another tale in the chronicle of the Trump administration attempting to influence.

As the nation continued to struggle with controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and the decision to open for in-person classes weighed heavily on schools, the Trump administration requested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) change the title of a September scientific report on the coronavirus and omit words like “pediatric” from the text, according to a report by Politico. 

In a Sept. 11 email exchange obtained by Politico, then-public affairs official Paul Alexander said the embargoed CDC bulletin, set to publish later that week, contained “faulty science.” Alexander specifically singled out language around COVID-19 and younger populations, his messages coming at a time when President Trump was pushing for schools to reopen for fall classes, along with other sectors of society and the economy. 

Alexander wrote to Charlotte Kent, the editor-in-chief of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR), that defining teenagers aged 18 and older as “pediatric” patients was “misleading.” Alexander also said that the bulletin incorrectly conflated the risks of the coronavirus to young children and older adolescents, and as Politico reports, urged Kent to make multiple changes to the document. 

The draft was meant to focus on the coronavirus and its effects on children. But the final version seemed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 on children by making the report’s focus on kids and adolescents less clear, according to individuals who spoke with Politico. 


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Alexander’s emails also reportedly demanded that the medical and mortality reports be open to his edits, even though the MMWR has been historically protected from political appointees outside the CDC to insulate scientists from political pressures. 

Alexander also accused the CDC and the verbiage in the report on patients under age 21 to be panic-inducing and deceptive. Alexander wrote that the bulletins are “constantly reporting incompletely and writing in a manner to make the nation run and dig a hole and climb inside with their children for 10 years,” according to Politico. 

In the same email to Kent and CDC Director Robert Redfield, he added: “It makes no sense. It is meant to [deceive].” 

This development speaks to the efforts to edit or block the CDC’s weekly medical reports studying the coronavirus.

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Politico notes that the CDC has frequently used the term pediatric in reference to anyone under the age of 21, which is consistent with how the American Academy of Pediatrics defines the term

The report discussed between Alexander and CDC officials studied the associated deaths of coronavirus patients under 21 years of age, finding that the deaths associated with COVID-19 infection within this population included 12 infants and 85 patients between 10 to 20 years old. 

Additionally, seventy-eight percent of victims were Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, or non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Kent replied to Alexander and expressed concerns that if the CDC complied with the requests, it could look as if the health agency had its integrity as an objective organization compromised. 

"[I]f we change the title and how the cases are described, there could be an erroneous perception that we are being influenced," Kent reportedly wrote on Sept. 14 to other CDC officials.

The final draft of the report was published on Sept.15 and contained revisions approved by fellow CDC officials but also those of Alexander. One example Politico cites is the altering of the title that previously contained the words "Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults" to “Persons.”

The term “pediatric” also did not make it in the final draft, despite discussing patients under the age of 21. 

Alexander’s purported correspondence with CDC officials illustrates the tug-of-war between the Trump administration attempting to influence independent scientific agencies like the CDC. 

Other instances, including reports that CDC guidelines that advised people without COVID-19 symptoms to avoid getting tested, were written by officials at the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS) rather than scientists. 

The CDC gave a statement to Politico saying that the revisions to the medical report from September were scientifically-driven, and they went through an “internal clearance process, not based on any comments from outside CDC."

Redfield has adamantly defended the institution, testifying before Congress that the agency remains independent and nonpartisan.

“At no time has the scientific integrity of the MMWR been compromised and I can say that under my watch it will not be compromised,” he said. 


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Published on Oct 05, 2020