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Despair at CDC after Trump influence: ‘I have never seen morale this low’
The Trump administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent efforts to meddle with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are taking a substantial toll on the nation’s foremost public health institution.
In interviews with half a dozen current and former CDC officials, they described a workforce that has seen its expertise questioned, its findings overturned for political purposes and its effectiveness in combating the pandemic undermined by partisan actors in Washington.
“I have never seen morale this low. It’s just, people are beaten down. People are beaten down partially by a public who not only distrusts us but who actually think we want to infringe on their civil liberties,” said one current CDC employee. “The other factor is the active undermining by senior members of our own administration.”
Those who still work at the agency requested anonymity to describe conversations among their colleagues, for fear of retribution from an administration that has punished officials who speak out.
They expressed frustration that the CDC, long an independent voice of dispassionate science, has bent to the whims of an administration that does not acknowledge the severity of a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S. They have seen guidance revised or removed — most recently this week, when the CDC took down language that acknowledged the virus mainly spreads through aerosol droplets, something the World Health Organization said months ago.
In the early months of the pandemic, senior CDC officials including Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat and Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, were sidelined after sounding the alarms over the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus.
President Trump publicly downplayed — and continues to downplay — the pandemic, questioning both his own top medical and health experts and the science that shows mask mandates and social distancing work. In private, Trump acknowledged that the virus was far more deadly, according to interviews published by veteran journalist Bob Woodward.
“As I talk to former colleagues at CDC, the feeling I get is just an overwhelming sense of despair. People are working incredibly hard to reduce the impact of the pandemic and the sense that they’re being blocked by people at the political level, and that the work that they’re doing is not being appreciated by the American public,” said Rich Besser, a former CDC director who now runs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“The feeling right now is that public health is not being allowed to lead and to demonstrate the path forward to reduce transmission and increase economic activity,” he said.
CDC spokespeople did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have publicly questioned the CDC’s conclusions, published in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Those reports are sacrosanct documents meant to highlight the agency’s best work and research.
House Democrats have launched an inquiry into potential political interference in the CDC’s publications.
The HHS officials who sought changes to those reports included Michael Caputo, who worked on Trump’s campaign and who arrived at the health agency in April, and his top science adviser, Paul Alexander. Alexander has left HHS, and Caputo has taken medical leave after a bizarre rant on Facebook in which he accused CDC officials of trying to harm Trump’s political standing.
Some current CDC employees pointed to a directive from HHS in August, when guidance recommending that those who came into contact with someone infected by the virus be tested even if they were asymptomatic was quietly removed from the agency’s website. That recommendation was reinstated, after public outcry.
“It’s horrifying. I don’t know of any other situation like this, when things have been dictated to be put on the CDC website that aren’t defensible science. The idea that you shouldn’t test contacts is just indefensible,” said Tom Frieden, who led the CDC during the Obama administration.
The political interference in guidance, and Trump’s pledges that a vaccine will be ready soon — a promise that stands in contrast with CDC Director Robert Redfield’s testimony to Congress last week that a vaccine would not be widely available until next year — is raising concerns over whether the public will accept a vaccine once it becomes available.
“It’s incredibly sad to all of us that the recent guidance is causing a loss of trust for CDC in general. I’m very nervous about what is going to happen when a vaccine is available, especially if the phase three trials are cut short for political reasons,” said a current CDC employee. “Public health messaging is so important and it’s been disregarded since the early days of the pandemic.”
Others at the CDC said political interference has been taking place from the first days of the pandemic. On one incident management call, an official who listened in said Redfield talked about how he had been instructed by Vice President Pence to change CDC guidelines on the size of public gatherings to come in line with the White House coronavirus task force recommendations.
A spokesperson for Pence’s office denied that he instructed Redfield to change any guidance. But in March, the CDC changed its guidance from a limit on public gatherings from 50 people to 10 people — three days after the White House’s task force set the limit at 10.
The current CDC employees said their faith in Redfield’s leadership had been shaken, both by his inability to prevent changes to recommendations handed down from Washington and for his unwillingness to defend the agency more vociferously. Those employees called Redfield, a prominent AIDS researcher at the University of Maryland before he was tapped to head CDC, both humble and approachable.
“It’s become quite obvious that Dr. Redfield is a meek and gentle guy in a context where a fighter was needed,” the first CDC employee said. “He is not seen by anybody at CDC as somebody who will stand up and fight for us, as an agency.”
Even Redfield’s predecessors have been critical of his defense of their agency.
“What does concern me is that we’re not seeing strong support for the agency from the top, and that can be demoralizing. One role of the CDC director is to have the backs of the scientists and all of the people working hard across the agency, and we’re not seeing that,” Besser said. “I don’t know what Dr. Redfield is doing behind closed doors, but we haven’t been hearing from him out front condemning interference in CDC publications.”
CDC sources said there had been no talk of mass resignations to protest the administration’s handling of the pandemic, or its meddling in public health science. Some have joked of moving to New Zealand or Australia, but most say they will continue their work to promote public health.
“People in public health by and large are people who just see suffering and want there to be less of it. That’s what drives you into public health. I mean, God knows you don’t do it for the money,” the first CDC employee said. But, the employee added: “The overall tenor of things, the drumbeat is just too disheartening.”
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