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A boy arrives for the first day of school at the Lincoln-Hancock Community School in Quincy, Massachusetts on September 17, 2020. (Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

'Disgusting': Critics Denounce Reported Trump Team Effort to Pressure CDC on School Reopenings

One former aide said she saw "senior White House political staff actively undermine the doctors by attempting to manipulate scientific data on the virus and force changes to CDC guidances."

Lisa Newcomb

In yet another revelation regarding the Trump Administration's concerted effort to downplay the threat of Covid-19 to the American people, new reporting shows top White House officials pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to encourage in-person schooling, despite scientific evidence that the virus is airborne and can be more easily spread indoors.

"The White House spent weeks trying to press public health professionals to fall in line with President [Donald] Trump's election-year agenda of pushing to reopen schools and the economy as quickly as possible," the New York Times reported Monday. "The president and his team have remained defiant in their demand for schools to get back to normal, even as coronavirus cases have once again ticked up, in some cases linked to school and college reopenings."

In the Times article, Mark Mazzetti, Noah Weiland, and Sharon LaFraniere wrote these actions were "a strikingly political intervention in one of the most sensitive public health debates of the pandemic, according to documents and interviews with current and former government officials."

The revelations come as the global death toll from Covid-19 surpassed one million people—nearly a fifth of them in the United States—this week, and as a new CDC report found more than 277,000 American children have contracted cornoavirus since May. Kaiser Health News reported earlier this month that opening colleges and universities in the U.S. fueled a spike in Covid-19 cases at the rate of about 3,000 a day.

Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence on the White House Coronavirus Task Force—who was admittedly involved in some of the alleged interference—has since spoken out about the efforts, saying she regrets being "complicit" in the disinformation campaign.

"During my tenure on the task force, I saw senior White House political staff actively undermine the doctors by attempting to manipulate scientific data on the virus and force changes to CDC guidances," Troye tweeted Tuesday. "I know my former task force colleagues are still fighting for what's right today."

According to Times reporting, "As part of their behind-the-scenes effort, White House officials also tried to circumvent the CDC in a search for alternate data showing that the pandemic was weakening and posed little danger to children... The effort included Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, and officials working for Vice President Mike Pence, who led the task force. It left officials at the CDC, long considered the world's premier public health agency, alarmed at the degree of pressure from the White House."

The CDC itself has come under fire for its inconsistent guidance on how Covid-19 is spread and its public health recommendations to the American public regarding what safety precautions are necessary and when.

As Common Dreams reported Monday, the agency's director, Robert Redford, was reportedly overheard telling a colleague that Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no expertise in infectious diseases or epidemiology appointed to the coronavirus task force in August, has been spreading incorrect information at the behest of the Trump administration.

"Everything he says is false," Redford  a phone conversation on an airplane overheard by an NBC journalist on the same flight.

The Times details a months-long push to downplay the dangers of opening schools:

The White House seized on a bar chart the CDC distributed [in June] to other agencies, which showed that 60% of coronavirus deaths were people over the age of 75. Officials asked the CDC to provide a new chart to show people 18 and under as a separate group—rather than including them as normal in an under-25 category—in an effort to demonstrate that the risk for school-age children was relatively low.

In another instance, Dr. Birx took a direct role in an effort to push the CDC to incorporate work from a little-known agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The document worked on by the mental health agency struck a different tone from the cautious approach being proposed by the CDC, warning that school closures would have a long-term effect on the mental health of children. It said that "very few reports of children being the primary source of Covid-19 transmission among family members have emerged" and asserted that children who were asymptomatic "are unlikely to spread the virus."

That document became the "gist" of the mental health agency's official position on school reopenings, the Times reported.

Throughout the summer, Trump made a public effort to push for school reopenings, arguing that it was safe and that the risks outweighed the damage to children's mental health that not reopening would cause.

In addition, the Times reported Monday, "the White House drafted materials that CDC officials originally believed were intended to be posted on the White House website, including an illustrated slide presentation emphasizing the 'high costs of keeping schools closed,' while asserting that school-age children face minimal risks from the coronavirus."

The slides, obtained by Times, were not made public due to objections from CDC officials.

In response to the reporting, lawmakers Tuesday chided the Trump Administration for putting lives at risk.

"[The] Trump White house pressured CDC to say schools could safely reopen, even though scientists disagreed with the data," Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) tweeted. "Some of that data was included by the CDC. That's our kids' safety at risk. Disgusting." 

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