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CDC causes new storm by pulling coronavirus guidance
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday retracted new guidance on how the coronavirus spreads, raising questions about whether the guidelines were removed for political reasons.
The CDC on Friday published guidance indicating that the novel coronavirus could spread through aerosol droplets, acknowledging that the virus could transmit beyond six feet and suggesting that proper indoor ventilation is a key way to slow the spread of the virus.
The CDC said the virus was known to spread "through respiratory droplets or small particles, such as those in aerosols, produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes."
The update was not publicly announced, but it was first noticed by CNN on Sunday.
By Monday morning, the agency had removed the language on airborne spread from its website and reverted to the previous guidance.
At the top of the webpage, the CDC explained the guidance on airborne transmission was a "draft" that had been "posted in error" and that the CDC was still updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission.
The agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The move was a self-inflicted wound coming from an agency that has suffered from a loss of credibility among the public in recent weeks, and immediately raised fears of a cover-up among Democrats and some activists.
"The CDC just published scientifically valid information and then pulled it off their website and this is very likely a scandal," Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted Monday.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, responded: "One way or another, we're going to investigate it and find out."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement Monday evening called the removal "the latest example of a deeply broken Trump Administration response that sows confusion, fans the virus's spread and costs Americans' lives."
She added that Americans "need to hear directly from the scientists about how the virus spreads and what precautions are necessary - not guidance that worries more about contradicting President Trump than keeping families safe."
Olivia Troye, a former aide to Vice President Pence and the White House coronavirus task force, tweeted she has seen some of these "changes" in guidelines occur firsthand.
"This is likely what happened: @CDCgov tried to warn & tell the truth, it didn't fit the President's narrative & someone got an angry call. This is so dangerous for the American people," Troye wrote.
The CDC has faced a storm of criticism throughout the pandemic as the agency flailed from one crisis to the next. In the spring, a fiasco over testing delays first put the typically nonpartisan agency on the defensive.
Subsequent attacks on government scientists from President Trump intensified the spotlight on the CDC, and the agency's director, Robert Redfield, has found himself on the hot seat as he tries to both placate the president and defend his agency.
Just last week, top communications officials in the Department of Health and Human Services came under fire for trying to control the content and timing of the CDC's weekly scientific reports on the pandemic.
The action by the CDC on Monday marks the second time in as many weeks the agency reversed itself.
Last Friday, the CDC revised controversial guidance from August that stated people without COVID-19 symptoms did not necessarily need to be tested, even if they had close contact with confirmed cases.
The original language was deleted, and the update was applauded by public health experts, who warned that the CDC's changes last month would be a step backward in the nation's COVID-19 response.
The New York Times reported that the initial change in guidance was written by Department of Health and Human Services officials - the CDC's parent agency - and not by scientists. The August guidance was posted despite objections from CDC scientists, according to the Times.
Despite the recent history, at least one public health expert said he believes the aerosol transmission guidance was posted in error.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said the distinction between "airborne" and "aerosols" is complicated and somewhat semantic.
The "airborne" description is usually applied by infectious disease doctors to diseases like measles, which is far more contagious than COVID-19. That's why public health officials have been more concerned with close person-to-person contact.
"The CDC guidance, to me, whatever version is there, it doesn't really change anything that we're doing or how we're thinking about this or what precautions we need to take," Adalja said.
Adalja said he understands why people may think there was political meddling, and that underscores the bigger problems facing the agency ahead.
"The CDC has been put in an odd position by this administration from the very beginning and has been countermanded and corrected and scolded and minimized," Adalja said.
"And because of that, anytime there is some kind of guidance [change], even if it is an innocent error or something that needs a little bit more editing, people will rush to that judgment, because the credibility has been damaged," Adalja added.