CDC appointees describe messaging winning out over science at the agency

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) appointees told The New York Times that political messaging won out over science when the two were pitted against each other throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Former chief of staff Kyle McGowan and his deputy Amanda Campbell, both of whom were appointed by President Trump and left the CDC in August, described their attempts to protect the agency and their colleagues from interference from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

“Everyone wants to describe the day that the light switch flipped and the CDC was sidelined. It didn’t happen that way,” McGowan told the Times. “It was more of like a hand grasping something, and it slowly closes, closes, closes, closes until you realize that, middle of the summer, it has a complete grasp on everything at the CDC.” 

“Every time that the science clashed with the messaging, messaging won,” he said.

McGowan and Campbell said the White House, its coronavirus task force and political appointees requested to review and edit the agency’s coronavirus guidance, usually toning down any urgency in it. 

HHS political appointees instructed CDC leaders to adjust, delay or scrap drafts of guidance that they thought could be perceived as “contradiction to what message the White House and HHS were trying to put forward,” Campbell told the Times. 

McGowan said the White House voiced concerns about the coronavirus guidance’s potential effects on the economy, and negotiated any recommendations that could hurt business. 

The interagency review of guidance was “legitimate,” Tom Frieden, the former CDC director under President Obama, told the Times. 

“What’s not legitimate is to overrule science,” he added.

CDC officials took creative routes to bypass the apparent political interference, including publishing updates to previous guidance that didn’t require official review until the administration requested to examine those updates too, according to the Times.

In the fall, officials reportedly took bolder action by adjusting guidance on schools and asymptomatic testing without administration review and restarting media briefings.

“All proposed guidelines and regulations with potentially sweeping effects on our economy, society, and constitutional freedoms receive appropriate consultation from all stakeholders, including Task Force doctors, other experts, and Administration leaders,” White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern said in a statement to The Hill.

“The Coronavirus Task Force and [Office of Management and Budget] have played an important coordinating role to ensure all of the government’s public health guidance is science-based, clear and consistent for the American people,” he added. 

The CDC and HHS did not immediately return requests for comment. 

McGowan also told President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team that the incoming administration should resume regular news briefings with scientists in order to build back the agency’s credibility and to address the ongoing pandemic, according to the Times.

Tags Brian Morgenstern CDC CDC guidance Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus coronavirus economy coronavirus guidance COVID-19 Department of Health and Human Services Donald Trump HHS Joe Biden Pandemic political Interference Science White House
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