The CDC Is Reckoning With Its Damage Under Trump

Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s credibility has taken a body blow during the pandemic, as politicized recommendations and chronic underfunding undercut the public-health response, helping lead to wave after wave of coronavirus cases and deaths.

To understand the damage over the past year, the CDC’s new director Rochelle Walensky ordered a review of Trump-era guidelines that marginalized scientists in favor of political appointees at the agency. Presented to the public on Monday, the document identifies several directives — which have already been revoked — that were “not primarily authored” by staff and do not adhere to scientific evidence.

The first involves a set of recommendations about economic reopening released by the White House in April, which were substantially less detailed than those originally drafted by the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The second set was published in July, and argued in favor of schools reopening in the fall while underplaying health risks. The third set, published in August, said that asymptomatic people who had been in contact with coronavirus carriers “do not necessarily need a test.”

The summer directives were particularly egregious. The one in July came weeks after Trump condemned the agency’s prior, more careful recommendations regarding schools as “very tough and expensive.” And as the Washington Post notes, the guidance’s “opening preamble extolling the importance of in-school classes was presented as a CDC document, but the agency was not part of the discussion or drafting.” The recommendation from August to discourage testing was replaced less than a month later, after experts in and out of government decried the guidelines; at that point, it was already known that the virus could be spread by asymptomatic carriers. The August guideline was also consistent with then-President Trump’s call months earlier to “slow the testing down.”

The author of the review, CDC principal deputy director Anne Schuchat, was careful not to directly address the politicization of public health under Trump. She does not name the administration appointees who wrote the guidance overruling CDC authors, and uses the word “politics” only once. But the document confirms reports from last year detailing how political appointees frequently overruled public-health experts since the beginning of the crisis.

“This is something that I will not allow as CDC director,” Walensky said, announcing the review on Monday. “The processes we have in place moving forward will ensure this cannot and will not occur.”

The CDC Is Reckoning With Its Damage Under Trump