Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

“We’ve been muzzled,” one official said.

Leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are protesting interference in their fight against COVID-19 from a White House more focused on politics than science. 

“We’ve been muzzled,” a CDC official told CNN anonymously. “What’s tough is that if we would have acted earlier on what we knew and recommended, we would have saved lives and money.”

The CDC appeared to lose favor with the White House in the early weeks of February, when contaminated labs delayed the campaign to roll out test kits nationally. Relations worsened later that month, as messaging from the agency and the Oval Office became increasingly disjointed. 

Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned the public on Feb. 25 that “the disruption to everyday life might be severe.” The next day, Trump, who sought to downplay the severity of the virus and its lasting effects, announced the appointment of Vice President Mike Pence to lead his newly minted White House Coronavirus Task Force. Messonnier was subsequently reduced from a leading role at briefings to not appearing at all.

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The CDC also found its reports and data being ignored or minimized. In a March 2 report, the agency informed the administration that the virus was sweeping Europe, with half of the top 6 most impacted countries located on the continent. But “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,” the senior CDC official said. 

The CDC cleared a global travel alert March 5 that urged against international travel, expecting the president to approve it that night. Trump, who had banned U.S. entry to anyone traveling from China since Feb. 2, inexplicably waited a week later, March 11, to announce it, allowing the ingress of thousands of risky travelers in the meantime. He went on to repeatedly refer to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” despite a rise in domestic hate crimes against Asian Americans. 

Historically, from the swine flu epidemic to the ebola crisis, the CDC has been the face of public health in the U.S. Leaders have provided public information and updates, heading press conferences and speaking on behalf of the government in media interviews. But this pandemic has seen public attention shifted from CDC leaders to members of the president’s coronavirus task force, namely Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, task force coordinator.

“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,” Dr. Howard Markel, a public health professor at the University of Michigan, told CNN. “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.”

As the president’s focus has shifted from mitigating the spread of the virus to reopening the economy, CDC data at odds with that goal are again being buried. Instead of using CDC guidance to draft policy, as has been done in the past, the administration requested then shelved the CDC’s detailed plan on safely reopening the country earlier this month. Members of the coronavirus task force felt it was too specific, according to a senior administration official.

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“The message we received in previous administrations was, you guys are the scientists,” a CDC 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.”