'We've been muzzled': CDC sources say White House putting politics ahead of science

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In interviews with CNN, CDC officials say their agency's efforts to mount a coordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been hamstrung by a White House whose decisions are driven by politics rather than science.

Posted: May 20, 2020 1:47 AM
Updated: May 20, 2020 10:45 AM


In the early weeks of the US coronavirus outbreak, staff members in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tracked a growing number of transmissions in Europe and elsewhere, and proposed a global advisory that would alert flyers to the dangers of air travel.

But about a week passed before the alert was issued publicly -- crucial time lost when about 66,000 European travelers were streaming into American airports every day.

The delay, detailed in documents obtained by CNN, is the latest example to emerge of a growing sense of disconnect between the CDC and the White House.

In interviews with CNN, CDC officials say their agency's efforts to mount a coordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been hamstrung by a White House whose decisions are driven by politics rather than science.

The result has worsened the effects of the crisis, sources inside the CDC say, relegating the 73-year-old agency that has traditionally led the nation's response to infectious disease to a supporting role.

Rising tensions between CDC leadership and the White House over the perception that the agency has been sidelined has been a developing story in the media for weeks. But now, mid- and higher-ranking staff members within the agency -- six of whom spoke with CNN for this story -- are starting to voice their discontent. Those six spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

'We've been muzzled,' said a current CDC official. 'What's tough is that if we would have acted earlier on what we knew and recommended, we would have saved lives and money.'

Where the relationship started to sour

Sources say the origin of the trust issues between the CDC and White House traces back to the CDC's botched effort to distribute testing in early February, when contamination in the lab led to long delays. Relations between them soured further in late February, when high-ranking CDC official Nancy Messonnier warned the American public -- at a time when President Donald Trump was out of the country and downplaying the threat -- that 'the disruption to everyday life might be severe.'

The consequences have filtered down to the American public in tangible ways.

One that caused consternation within the agency involved the delayed travel alert in early March.

As Covid-19 was racing across the globe, a March 2 CDC internal daily report attributed spread in the European region to Italy but also noted 'evidence of local transmission in 29 other countries.' In a follow-up report two days later, '85 international locations' had reported cases.

On March 5 -- with three of the top six countries outside of China affected by the disease in Europe -- the CDC was expecting to post a global travel alert that night, according to a CDC document that noted the alert had been cleared internally.

Although the CDC had already posted some travel warnings for individual countries, such as China, Italy, Iran and South Korea, the proposed alert would have urged precautions for international travel anywhere.

But it didn't happen that night. For unexplained reasons, the travel alert that was expected to be posted March 5 didn't occur until March 11 -- the same day Trump announced his sharp restrictions on travel from more than two dozen European countries.

Asked about the time lapse, a Trump administration official said the CDC had issued warnings and alerts by early March for specific countries dealing with outbreaks.

The administration official also said the CDC is one of many agencies that is a part of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and that the views of CDC have always been represented at task force meetings and folded into what has been presented at White House press briefings on the virus.

CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the travel advisory issue, or the wider allegation that the CDC has been sidelined.

White House was focused on China instead of Europe, source says

A senior official inside the CDC told CNN that the agency also alerted the White House to the virus's rapid spread across Europe, but that 'the White House was extremely focused on China and not wanting to anger Europe ... even though that's where most of our cases were originally coming from.'

Some experts say the worst consequence of the frayed relationship is a general sense that the CDC has lost its place as the face and voice of public health in the midst of a 100-year pandemic.

'The CDC ... were part of the mistakes with the early problems with testing, and it seemed like after that, they weren't trusted as much,' said James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and a former CDC official. But, he added, 'there's no place in the world that has more epidemiologists and scientists studying respiratory infections. ... We need them now.'

During the swine flu pandemic in 2009, Dr. Anne Schuchat -- then the CDC's director of the National Center of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (she's now the principal deputy director) -- was a constant presence in the media, so much so that she became the inspiration for Kate Winslet's character in the movie 'Contagion.'

During the Ebola crisis of 2014, then CDC head Tom Frieden took command of the public spotlight, heading up press conferences to deliver the latest news and often serving as the voice of the federal government's response in media interviews.

Although the current CDC leader, Dr. Robert Redfield, participates in the White House briefings, experts say his presence has been subdued in comparison to his predecessors. The public face of the Covid-19 crisis has instead been ceded to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator for the President's coronavirus task force.

'I respect and admire Dr. Fauci immensely but he represents the scientific and research lane, and Dr. Birx represents the policy lane at the White House level,' said Dr. Howard Markel, a public health and medicine historian at the University of Michigan. 'The CDC represents the public health lane, internationally as well as working with state and territorial health offices, so I would want a representative from that lane.'

Trump administration has sidelined the CDC in coronavirus response, sources say

In the initial days of the outbreak in China, the CDC was out in front on public messaging.

It hosted a tele-conference call with reporters about the new coronavirus on January 17, not even a week after China had reported its first death.

'This is a serious situation,' said Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. 'It's crucial to be proactive and prepared.'

But then came Messonnier's grim warning on February 25. The following day, Trump installed Vice President Mike Pence as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Within a couple of weeks, the telebriefings tapered off.

'Then it got really dicey because obviously it became hyper political,' said a current CDC staffer.

Earlier this month, CNN reported that the Trump administration shelved CDC-drafted guidelines to reopen the US; the CDC's guidelines were more strict and detailed than the White House's own road map toward a return to normal.

'If you look at our guidance documents online, they have been watered down a lot,' said a current CDC official. 'The ones that were written in March say, 'Go home and stay there,' and they are very clear. And the ones now say, 'in consultation with state and local governors, do what they say.''

The official added: 'We normally give guidance and then states take that guidance and turn it into policy.'

A CDC employee said an overarching concern is that the agency's scientific work is taking a back seat to politics.

'The message we received in previous administrations was, you guys are the scientists,' the employee said. 'That's not the case this time. If the science that we are offering up contradicts a specific policy goal, then we are the problem.'

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 20573

Reported Deaths: 878
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin6918534
Ramsey231697
Stearns192312
Nobles14572
Anoka116455
Dakota105935
Olmsted55110
Washington50626
Kandiyohi4541
Clay36623
Rice3652
Scott3462
Wright2401
Sherburne2081
Todd1970
Benton1662
Carver1612
Mower1501
Steele1400
Martin1245
Blue Earth1121
St. Louis11113
Pine850
Freeborn840
Winona7715
Carlton730
Nicollet683
Cottonwood620
Polk582
Otter Tail550
Itasca527
Goodhue522
Watonwan500
Chisago481
Dodge430
Meeker420
Crow Wing421
Le Sueur411
Chippewa400
Jackson390
Morrison380
Murray350
Becker320
Lyon310
Douglas290
McLeod260
Isanti250
Waseca240
Rock210
Unassigned199
Fillmore171
Mille Lacs161
Wabasha160
Swift150
Sibley120
Beltrami120
Wilkin113
Norman110
Kanabec111
Cass113
Faribault110
Brown112
Pipestone100
Marshall80
Pennington70
Pope70
Aitkin60
Wadena60
Yellow Medicine50
Koochiching50
Lincoln50
Mahnomen51
Renville50
Lac qui Parle30
Red Lake30
Big Stone30
Redwood30
Traverse30
Grant20
Houston20
Clearwater20
Hubbard10
Kittson10
Lake10
Roseau10

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 17227

Reported Deaths: 456
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk3714108
Woodbury255524
Black Hawk167639
Linn92775
Marshall86611
Dallas84914
Johnson5987
Muscatine54339
Wapello5004
Crawford4772
Tama39023
Louisa3347
Scott3319
Dubuque31916
Jasper25616
Buena Vista2310
Pottawattamie2106
Sioux1990
Washington1798
Allamakee1184
Wright1170
Plymouth1080
Warren1060
Story941
Poweshiek888
Bremer676
Henry611
Clinton601
Boone540
Des Moines531
Mahaska526
Cedar451
Guthrie433
Taylor370
Benton371
Jones360
Monroe334
Iowa320
Clarke320
Osceola320
Shelby310
Buchanan310
Clayton303
Marion290
Webster271
Fayette260
Hamilton260
Madison241
Monona230
Cerro Gordo221
Lee220
Winneshiek210
Davis200
Lyon190
Grundy190
Harrison190
Floyd181
Jefferson150
Cherokee150
Butler150
Mills140
Delaware140
Humboldt130
Sac130
Greene130
Keokuk130
Hardin130
Howard120
Hancock120
Appanoose123
Audubon111
Jackson110
Cass110
Ida100
Page100
Clay100
Winnebago100
Carroll90
Van Buren80
Franklin80
Dickinson80
Adair80
Chickasaw80
Kossuth70
Emmet70
Lucas60
Montgomery60
Union60
Adams50
Ringgold40
Fremont40
Pocahontas40
Mitchell40
Palo Alto30
Worth30
Unassigned30
Calhoun20
Wayne10
Decatur00
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