President Donald Trump's White House reportedly instructed federal health officials to treat high-level meetings and discussions on the coronavirus as classified, a move critics said is clearly aimed at concealing potentially crucial information about the pandemic from the public.
Reuters reported Wednesday that "dozens of classified discussions about such topics as the scope of infections, quarantines, and travel restrictions have been held since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)."
"A clear effort to hide information from the public. We will keep investigating and demanding answers."
"Staffers without security clearances, including government experts, were excluded from the interagency meetings, which included video conference calls," Reuters noted.
One anonymous official told Reuters that the decision was "unnecessary" and may have hampered the administration's ability to respond to the outbreak as it has spread across the United States over the past two months. The novel coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, has infected people in at least 34 states and killed more than 30 in the U.S.
"We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go," the official said. "These should not be classified meetings. It was unnecessary."
Another anonymous source told Reuters that, because of the classification order, "HHS staffers often weren't informed about coronavirus developments because they didn't have adequate clearance. [The source] said he was told that the matters were classified 'because it had to do with China.'"
The White House has reportedly instructed federal agencies to *classify* coronavirus deliberations and meetings — a clear effort to hide information from the public.
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Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist who has been publicly critical of Trump's response to the coronavirus outbreak, tweeted Wednesday that Trump's order to classify coronavirus meetings shows the president is "trying to cover his tracks" as he continues to face backlash over his handling of the outbreak.
"Yes, Donald Trump has botched the response to coronavirus pandemic," said Gonsalves. "But classifying deliberations makes it harder for health experts in government without security clearances to be in key meetings."
"This is unprecedented, unnecessary, and damages our ability to respond to the pandemic," Gonsalves added.