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Trump coronavirus response seen as threat to CDC confidence

The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. is threatening to undermine public confidence in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC has been at the center of the U.S. response to the outbreak, with CDC Director Robert Redfield becoming a regular presence at administration briefings with Vice President Pence and President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE.

But the CDC has also come under criticism, along with other parts of the government, for a slow rollout of tests for the coronavirus that has helped contribute to the rapid spread of the virus around the United States.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) at a press conference on Sunday said the CDC needed to “wake up” and allow states to conduct their own testing.

Cuomo renewed the criticism in a Wednesday interview on NBC’s “Today,” saying the federal government should “just take the handcuffs off me and let New York state do what New York state can do.”

Critics like the New York governor saw overly strict testing criteria and a flawed test kit for coronavirus as contributing factors to the virus’s spread.

“The incompetence has really exceeded what anyone would expect with the C.D.C.,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told The New York Times last week.

He said the rolling out of a test kit for the virus was “not a difficult problem to solve in the world of viruses.”

There are also concerns that the CDC messaging has been influenced by politics — specifically Trump’s repeated attempts to downplay the severity of the outbreak.

“This president has said the opposite of what his scientists, what the government scientists ... and public health experts have said,” said Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaTrump, Biden final arguments at opposite ends on COVID-19 Britain to infect healthy individuals with coronavirus for vaccine trials 'Nodding Woman' behind Trump at town hall is former House candidate MORE (D-Fla.), the former head of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton. 

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Administration officials have only recently begun acknowledging that their initial response to the outbreak was flawed. 

“I am willing to say that we had to go through a regulatory process here to get the test out and our test was approved for very specific clinical settings,” Redfield said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday.

“We’ve expanded now ...  but it was a series of going through that regulatory process to get that test available.”

Meanwhile, Trump has given misleading statements suggesting that the nation has a larger capacity to test for the coronavirus than it actually has.

“As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test [can have one], that’s the important thing,” Trump said last week during a visit to the CDC. 

Vice President Pence said this week that there are tests in every state lab in the country. But widespread reports from across the country indicate there are still not enough for everyone to be tested.

As of Monday, Redfield said that only about 5,000 people had been tested across the country. That figure doesn't include tests run by commercial labs or hospitals, so the actual number of people in the U.S. who have been tested could be higher. 

Other countries experiencing outbreaks are far ahead of the U.S. in identifying new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

A group of 60 House Democrats wrote a letter to Trump on March 4, noting that top administration officials “have given wildly conflicting answers to critical questions.”

“Such discrepancies reveal a startling lack of information-sharing, which also suggests the absence of interagency coordination, planning, and strategic focus,” the Democrats wrote. “The potential of a pandemic is not a matter of economic or political benefit, it is a matter of life and death.”

Experts warn the fear of political interference could exacerbate the existing crisis.

“The most important thing that public health agencies need in a crisis is the trust of the population. Without trust, public health advice is ignored, and public health advice is the exact thing you need to get good health behaviors in the community,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor and public health expert at Georgetown University

Trump appointed Pence to lead the administration's coronavirus task force in February. His role was intended to centralize the administration's efforts on messaging and information flow, according to officials familiar with the decision. He immediately took control, routing media requests on the coronavirus through his office. 

Public health experts say having a consistent message is a worthy goal, so long as it’s free from political spin.

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“It's reasonable to ensure everyone has a consistent message, but they need to be free to tell it like it is,” said Thomas Frieden, a former CDC director in the Obama administration.

In recent days, health officials have ratcheted up their warnings to the American public. But when Pence first took over, health officials were reportedly required to clear their comments with the White House.

In a statement to The Hill, the White House defended the president's response. 

“The coronavirus is a serious situation that is changing hourly, and the President has been leading from the very beginning to protect the health and safety of the American people," White House spokesman Judd Deere said. 

Trump on other instances has contributed to a politicization of the CDC.

When he visited CDC headquarters in Atlanta last week alongside Redfield, Trump was sporting a “Keep America Great” campaign hat. 

When prompted by Trump to make brief remarks, Redfield offered praise. 

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“First, I want to thank you for your decisive leadership in helping us, you know, put public health first. Also want to thank you for coming here today and — and sort of encouraging and bringing energy to the men and women that you see that work every day to try to keep America safe. So I think that's the most important thing I want to say, sir,” Redfield said.

Stephanie Zaza, board president of the American College of Preventive Medicine, said the CDC can rise above politics and be a gold standard in public health, but only if scientists maintain their independence.

“Scientists can only do their work as long as they have credibility, an agency can only do its work if it has credibility,” she said. 

By bowing to political pressure and not reporting the hard facts, "the agency risks that credibility. They have to be pressing to get the info out, and leadership above the agency has to protect that."

Brett Samuels contributed