Political operative requested changes that downplayed the risks of COVID-19 to children as schools were opening up in the United States.
There is more evidence that political operatives within the Trump administration pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make the coronavirus pandemic seem less dangerous for children as the start of the school year approached.
According to emails obtained by POLITICO, Paul Alexander, a political appointee with little experience fighting infectious diseases, requested several changes to a report on pediatric patients and fatalities. Alexander has since since left the CDC. He was brought to work there by Michael Caputo, the Trump political operative who was put in charge of all health communications during the pandemic, but took a leave of absence last month after posting a Facebook video warning of violence after the election.
In emails to Charlotte Kent, the editor-in-chief of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, Alexander argued that defining adolescents 18 and older as “pediatric” patients was “misleading.” He also claimed the bulletin conflated how risky COVID-19 is for young children versus older teenagers. Alexander requested multiple changes to the report.
The final version of the bulletin contained the changes Alexander requested. Instead of using the word pediatric the report was changed to “persons” and the report’s title was changed.
The exchange came one day after President Donald Trump called for schools to open.
“On schools, as part of our science-based approach, we want schools to safely open and stay open,” Trump said in a press conference on Sept. 10. “Children are at extremely low risk of complications from the virus.”
Trump repeatedly called for schools to provide in-person classes so that parents could re-enter the workforce and push the country towards normal life even as states struggled to lower case counts. He often said that children were at a lower risk of developing severe symptoms of the coronavirus.
CDC officials expressed concern over emails from Alexander to Kent, according to POLITICO. The scientific reports had been viewed as untouchable by political operatives prior to the Trump administration, and the changes appeared to minimize the risks of COVID-19 to children by making the report less clear.
Another issue was a changed title that officials say made it more difficult to find the data related to children and COVID-19.
This isn’t the only report of Alexander and other Trump appointees trying to change CDC reports. In another instance, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx pressed the CDC to change its guidance to reopen schools, according to the New York Times.
The issue is especially concerning because historically the CDC has consistently insulated its reports from political pressure. Since these incidents have come to light, three former editors-in-chief of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports have warned that political pressure could damage the credibility of the reports.
“As former editors in chief of MMWR, we believe these media reports raise serious concerns that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific reports published in MMWR might have been delayed or altered for political purposes,” they wrote. “These concerns threaten the credibility of MMWR, an essential source of information to help counteract the pandemic.”