Controversial CDC guidelines were written by HHS officials, not scientists: report

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that advised people without COVID-19 symptoms not to get tested were written by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials, not scientists, The New York Times reported Thursday. 

The controversial guidance published Aug. 24 was posted despite scientists’ objections to the contents, according to several people familiar with the matter and internal documents obtained by the Times. The CDC advised asymptomatic people not to get tested even if they had interacted with someone who has COVID-19, sparking widespread criticism from public health experts. 

Administration officials had told the Times at the time that the guidance came from the CDC and was edited by CDC Director Robert Redfield. But officials told the newspaper this week that HHS staff rewrote the document and published it on the CDC’s website without going through the traditional review process. The review would typically require 12 to 20 people to approve the document.

“That was a doc that came from the top down, from the HHS and the task force,” a federal official with knowledge of the matter told the Times, referring to the White House coronavirus task force. “That policy does not reflect what many people at the CDC feel should be the policy.”

When CDC scientists saw copies of the current guidance in early August and objected, a senior CDC official told the scientists, “We do not have the ability to make substantial edits,” according to an email obtained by The Times. 

Adm. Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s testing czar, told the Times that the original guidance came from the CDC, but he “coordinated editing and input from the scientific and medical members of the task force.”

The document went through about 20 versions, Giroir said, and received comments from Redfield, members of the task force, Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx and Trump’s adviser on the coronavirus Scott Atlas. The guidance was also shown to Vice President Pence. 

But Giroir told the newspaper he didn’t know why the edits did not go through the review process, referring questions to Redfield.

Redfield told The Hill in a statement that “The guidelines, coordinated in conjunction with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, received appropriate attention, consultation and input from task force experts.”

After initial criticism from public health experts on the recommendations, Redfield backtracked, saying testing “may be considered for all close contacts,” but the online wording did not change. 

The CDC is expected to publish by the end of the week an updated guidance on testing, which also has not been through the scientific review process and instead was being edited by HHS officials, a federal official told the Times. 

An HHS spokesperson told The Hill in a statement, “As always, Guidelines receive appropriate attention, consultation and input from the medical and scientific experts on the Task Force. This was the case then, and will continue to be the case in the future.”

The Times report comes as several lawmakers are questioning the trustworthiness of the CDC, as reports of political influence affecting their work arise. Last weekend, Politico reported that political appointees at the health department adjusted the CDC’s weekly reports on the virus.

Officials also said the CDC guidance on reopening schools released in July did not follow the traditional review process.

Updated 10:48 p.m. 

Tags Anthony Fauci CDC CDC guidelines Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus COVID-19 Deborah Birx Department of Health and Human Services HHS Mike Pence Pandemic scientists The New York Times White House coronavirus task force
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