WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has repeatedly thwarted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention efforts in the past year to issue warnings and recommendations for the evolving coronavirus pandemic, six current and former health officials told Congressional investigators in recent interviews.
One of these officials, former CDC senior health expert Nancy Messonier, warned in a news briefing on February 25, 2020 that the spread of the virus in the United States was imminent – a statement that angered President Donald Trump and caused the agency to speak out. in the media is shrinking, according to excerpts from interviews and other documents released Friday by the House of Representatives subcommittee on pandemic issues.
The new information, including statements by former White House Coronavirus Coordinator Deborah Birx, confirms previous reports and offers more details on how the response to the pandemic has unfolded at the highest levels of government.
“Our intention was, of course, to draw public attention to the likelihood … that it would spread and that we think there is a high risk of it being destructive,” Messonnier told the group in an October 8 interview. But her public warning led to private reprimands, including from then-Minister of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, she said.
“I remember especially well how upset I was after speaking with Hazard,” Messonier told Congressional investigators.
Messonier and Hazard did not immediately respond to requests for comment. At an event organized by the conservative Heritage Foundation in January, Hazard said Messonier “did the right thing” in issuing his warning.
Anne Schuhat, who ranked second in the CDC until her retirement this year, also portrayed chaotic attempts to control government communications in those early months, informing the group that Trump officials were struggling to schedule a briefing hours after Messonier’s public warning, even although “there was nothing new to report.”
Shukhat joined Trump and other officials in a briefing the next day, where Trump insisted that the spread of the pandemic to the United States was not “inevitable,” even as Shukhat tried to warn Americans to prepare for “new cases.”
“Mixed reporting was a serious problem,” Shukhat told The Washington Post, describing the briefing as a minor issue. “I think the government has lost confidence.”
Other officials detailed why the CDC did not provide briefings from March 9 to May 29, 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, effectively shutting down the science agency as the coronavirus spreads rapidly across the United States.
Keith Galatas, a senior public relations officer for the CDC, told the group that the White House has repeatedly blocked agency media requests, including a scheduled April 2020 briefing that she said focused on the importance of wearing protective face covers to contain the spread of the virus.
“I think it would be important that timely information comes from the CDC,” Galatas said, adding that officials in Vice President Mike Pence’s office, such as public relations officer Devin O’Malley, told her that agency briefings were overkill for Trump’s White House press briefings.
In a statement, O’Malley defended the decision to block the CDC from holding its own briefings.
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House Coronavirus Task Force held daily press briefings, which were usually attended by senior CDC officials,” O’Malley said. “During a crisis, it is imperative that organizations deliver a single, clear and consistent message, so many communication errors on the part of the CDC over the past year and a half have resulted in a lack of trust in the organization among the American people.”
Galatas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Officials also confirmed that Trump appointees have pressured the agency to change its regular research papers, weekly morbidity and mortality reports, to better match the White House’s more upbeat reports on the state of the virus.
The group separately released emails detailing how White House officials have sought to shape the CDC’s leadership on how meat processing plants and religious groups should take precautions when responding to the virus.
Commissioner James E. Cliburn, chairman of the commission, called on former CDC director Robert Redfield for interviews with investigators, citing ongoing investigations. For example, Cliburn said two officials told the group that Redfield had urged staff to remove an email from the designated Trump seeking control of the agency’s scientific records.
“These incidents humiliated every major aspect of the previous administration’s public health response and severely damaged the reputation of a leading public health agency in the eyes of the world,” Clyburn wrote in a letter to Redfield, which the group publicly released. “As director of the CDC, you seem unwilling or unable to prevent this unprecedented pattern of political interference.”
Cliburn’s group is also demanding interviews with three longtime CDC officials – Martin Chetron, Daniel Jernigan and Henry Walk – stating that they “have relevant information about key events under investigation.” A representative from the Department of Health and Human Services will review the commission’s request and respond directly to Clyburn.
Last month, the group released additional excerpts from an interview with Birx, who, in new excerpts, claimed that White House adviser Scott Atlas had been working last year to restrict access to coronavirus tests.
Atlas helped amend the CDC’s testing guidelines in August 2020, which called for excluding people who had no visible symptoms, even if they came into contact with people infected with the virus, Birks said.
“This document led to fewer tests and … less aggressive testing of those without symptoms, which I believed was the main reason for the early spread of the community,” Birks told the group. She said she worked with Redfield and Walk to revise the testing agency’s guidelines to re-include people without symptoms, with this updated version released on September 18.
Through her spokesperson, Birx declined to comment. In a statement, Atlas challenged her portrayal of her role.
“I have never tried to shorten trials,” Atlas said. “All testing guides were written by Dr. Redfield and CDC.”