Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield told House investigators that one of his “greatest disappointments” was that the CDC’s public-facing role in the COVID-19 response was effectively shut down by the Trump administration, according to interview excerpts released by a congressional committee Friday.
Redfield said in his interview with the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that the CDC’s inability to put out truthful information damaged the agency’s standing with Americans, and that the agency should be more like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which Redfield characterized as more independent.
“I think it impacts trust of the American public on the agency,” Redfield said. “[CDC] didn’t really quite know how to function when every decision they wanted to make had to be reviewed by multiple different parties, and multiple different this and multiple different that. I think it would be much more easy if the public health agency was independent.”
Redfield was former President Donald Trump’s CDC director from March 2018 through the end of Trump’s time in the White House. For much of 2020, the agency was conspicuously absent from the administration’s public response to the COVID-19 crisis, and sometimes internal fights with the Department of Health and Human Services spilled out into public, such as when the administration ordered hospitals to start sending COVID data to the DHHS rather than the CDC.
The documents released by the House committee, which held a hearing Friday morning, also included emails from Trump officials showing the White House weakened the CDC’s May 2020 guidance on attending church and other religious services. One email, from Associate White House Counsel May Davis, referred to “problematic guidance” being online and said her edit “removes all tele-church suggestions,” after the CDC had already advised Americans to consider drive-in or streaming religious services, according to the Washington Post.
The email indicated that Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s White House counsel, had also edited the guidance. A day later, after the CDC released its guidance, Trump held a briefing demanding governors and other state officials open churches.
“As today’s new evidence also makes clear, Trump White House officials worked under the direction of the former president to purposefully undercut public health officials’ recommendations and muzzle their ability to communicate clearly to the American public,” Rep. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said in a statement.
Redfield slammed HHS in his interview. “I’ve said this publicly before, this is one of my great disappointments,” Redfield said. “That HHS basically took over total clearance of briefings by CDC.”
The former CDC director said the turn against his agency came after a Feb. 25, 2020, briefing in which Nancy Messonnier, who served for five years as the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said COVID-19’s disruption to American life would be “severe” and that community transmission would be nearly impossible to contain.
A little more than two years into the pandemic, there have been more than 81 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and nearly 1 million Americans have died, according to the New York Times.
Redfield said he was never explicitly told that the DHHS had revoked the CDC’s ability to do briefings, but that after the February briefing, the DHHS mostly stopped approving the agency’s requests to do them. “It’s such PTSD for probably six months,” Redfield told investigators.
“From where I sat, the ability to make those decisions internally at CDC were no longer CDC’s decisions,” Redfield said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report last week reviewing four agencies within DHHS, including the CDC, and determined that the DHHS needs to strengthen its defenses against political interference.
“To maintain public trust and credibility, these agencies need to ensure that these decisions are evidence-based and free from political interference,” the report said.
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