Trump administration officials at the Department of Health and Human Services reportedly bypassed career government scientists and authored the significantly relaxed coronavirus testing guidelines that experts criticized as medically unsound and dangerous when they were first published on the CDC website last month.
The New York Times reported late Thursday that the revised guidance—which says people who have been exposed to coronavirus don't necessarily need to get tested if they are asymptomatic—were posted online despite "serious objections" from CDC scientists. (Update: On Friday, the CDC reversed the testing guidance, saying in a new document that those who have been exposed to coronavirus "need a test" whether or not they have symptoms.)
"The Department of Health and Human Services did the rewriting and then 'dropped' it into the CDC's public website, flouting the agency's strict scientific review process," according to the Times, which cited anonymous officials familiar with the matter.
"Of course this recommendation didn't come from doctors at the CDC. No doctor in their right mind would tell someone who had been in close contact with someone with Covid to not get tested."
—Sen. Chris Murphy
One unnamed federal official told the Times that the revisions "came from the top down, from the HHS" and the White House Coronavirus Task Force headed by Vice President Mike Pence.
"That policy does not reflect what many people at the CDC feel should be the policy," the official said.
While recent reporting indicated that the significant alterations to CDC testing recommendations came at the behest of the White House, the extent to which Trump administration officials wrote the new guidelines themselves was not previously known. According to the Times, a new version of the testing guidance slated for publication on Friday "has also not been cleared by the CDC's usual internal review for scientific documents and is being revised by officials at Health and Human Services."
An anonymous senior CDC scientist told the Times that the testing document published last month "contains 'elementary errors'—such as referring to 'testing for Covid-19,' as opposed to testing for the virus that causes it—and recommendations inconsistent with the CDC's stance that mark it to anyone in the know as not having been written by agency scientists."
BLOODY bloody hell—CDC Didn’t Write Testing Guidance Published on Its Website. Bad guideline had said people without #Covid19 symptoms didn’t need to get tested for the virus (DANGEROUS!)—came from HHS officials & skipped CDC’s scientific review process. https://t.co/WQBtEUQ16B
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) September 17, 2020
Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, told the Times that he "coordinated editing" of the CDC guidelines and received "input from the scientific and medical members of the task force." The draft of the latest guidance went through around 20 versions, Giroir said.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate, called the new revelations about HHS officials' role in crafting the guidance "astounding."
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"Trump's hacks just sidestepped the CDC entirely and shamelessly wrote their own politically-motivated testing guidelines and published them under the agency's imprimatur," wrote El-Sayed.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he's not at all surprised that the guidelines were not authored by CDC experts.
"Of course this recommendation didn't come from doctors at the CDC," tweeted Murphy. "No doctor in their right mind would tell someone who had been in close contact with someone with Covid to not get tested. The CDC is becoming an arm of the president's reelection campaign."
Of course this recommendation didn’t come from doctors at the CDC.
No doctor in their right mind would tell someone who had been in close contact with someone w COVID to NOT get tested.
The CDC is becoming an arm of the President’s re-election campaign. https://t.co/N0cWayCPJ0
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) September 18, 2020
The new details surrounding Trump officials' interference with the CDC's work comes as HHS Secretary Alex Azar is facing calls to resign for allowing the political motivations of President Donald Trump to overtake the agency's public health imperatives amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
In June, as Common Dreams reported, Trump openly declared during a campaign rally in Oklahoma that he instructed officials to "slow the testing down," falsely blaming an increase in coronavirus tests for the surge in positive cases across the U.S. at the time.
Internal administration emails obtained by Politico last Friday showed that HHS communications chief Michael Caputo—who has since taken a 60-day medical leave of absence amid controversy over his unhinged attack on CDC scientists—and one of his top advisers altered weekly CDC reports to bring them into closer alignment with Trump's false optimism about the virus.
"This is just beyond the pale," Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves tweeted in response to Politico's reporting. "It's sick and disgusting."