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We’re in a Public Health Crisis. Where’s the CDC?

Accepted submission by upstart at 2020-03-24 12:29:52

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We’re in a public health crisis. Where’s the CDC? []:

Two weeks have now gone by since the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has held a press briefing to update the media and the public on the COVID-19 pandemic and the agency's response efforts.

In those two weeks, the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has blazed through communities across the country and begun ravaging local healthcare systems. There have been over 42,800 detected cases and at least 579 deaths as of March 23. The true number of cases is thought to be much higher due to a nationwide lag in testing.

On March 9, the day of the CDC's last telebriefing [], there were around 500 cases and just 19 deaths. Up to that point, the CDC had been providing regular briefings, usually led by Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

But things began to change on February 26, when President Donald Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead a coronavirus response task force. In the days leading to the appointment, there was a clear gulf between the public health messaging from the CDC and statements made by Trump.

On February 25—a day before the appointment—Dr. Messonnier warned during a regular briefing that it was only a matter of time before the pandemic began spreading in the United States and the situation could turn bad quickly. "Disruption to everyday life might be severe []," she said as she urged Americans to prepare their families for those disruptions, which are now being realized.

But that frank—and demonstrably accurate and appropriate—messaging was at odds with statements from the president. Earlier that very same day, Trump said that the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is "very well under control in our country []," which was untrue.


According to a subsequent report in The New York Times, that dissonance led to Trump screaming over the phone to Alex M. Azar II [], secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC. The February 26 appointment of Pence displaced Azar, who was previously leading the administration's response efforts.

The appointment was quickly followed by reports that the White House was clamping down on messaging [] about the impending crisis and that all statements from public health officials would need to be cleared by Pence's office.

Dr. Messonnier led a few more press briefings after that, but the messaging at times seemed stilted. That included a rare and conspicuous reference to Trump [] when Dr. Messonnier emphasized that the number-one priority of the CDC—and the president—is the health and safety of the American people. It was the first time she had ever mentioned the president in a press briefing on COVID-19.

In a press briefing on March 3, a reporter asked her directly if the White House was censoring her and the agency's messages. She did not directly answer the question, only responding that the agency had "been very open and able to answer lots of different questions."

In the absence of the CDC's telebriefings, Pence's coronavirus task force had begun holding regular briefings. But the briefings have largely not included voices from the country's leading public health agency, such as CDC Director Robert Redfield or CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat.

Pants on fire

Moreover, the health messaging has been an ongoing debacle. In numerous instances, Trump has given misleading and downright false information about the dire pandemic. That includes his clumsy announcement [] of a project with Google and Verily to develop COVID-19 information and testing websites.

In a briefing March 18, Trump falsely claimed that the coronavirus had "snuck up on us" and that its spread in the US was "a very unforeseen thing." PolitiFact rated that claim a "Pants on Fire []"-level falsehood.

In a March 9 briefing, Trump falsely claimed [] that the drug chloroquine had proven effective at treating COVID-19 and that the Food and Drug Administration had approved it for that use. It has not been shown effective at treating COVID-19, and the agency has not approved it for that use, the FDA noted in a statement [].

With many of the country's top public health experts in the CDC sidelined during this health crisis, there's little ability to clarify such essential public health messages. The job has largely fallen to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Fauci is the country's top infectious disease expert and has advised six presidents on public health crises, from HIV/AIDS to Ebola and Zika.

But in a series of recent interviews, Fauci revealed just how difficult of a job it has been to advise Trump [], noting that he "cannot do the impossible" or "jump in front of the microphone and push [Trump] down."

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