Inch by inch, since the start of the pandemic, the White House has sought to sabotage the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention for the political benefit of President Donald Trump. To an alarming extent, it has succeeded. Once globally recognised as “the best science-based, data-driven agency in the world,” in the words of its current director, the CDC is now in danger of losing the public’s trust entirely.
The most glaring problem has been communication. Against the best judgment of its own staffers, the agency has said that reopening schools is crucial even if doing so increases the spread of the coronavirus. It has failed to caution churches to suspend or limit the use of choirs, which have been associated with outbreaks. It has even discouraged testing asymptomatic people, against the advice of nearly all experts — though it eventually reversed itself under a barrage of criticism. In each case, the agency’s scientific staff were ignored or overruled under pressure from the White House or from Trump himself.
At every step, in fact, the administration has made matters worse. Its political operatives have pushed the CDC to revise Covid-19 analyses in its respected Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, and have brazenly bullied agency officials. In an email obtained by the New York Times, an HHS adviser accused Dr Anne Schuchat, an esteemed deputy director, of working to “embarrass the president.” Trump publicly criticised CDC Director Robert Redfield for emphasizing to Congress the importance of wearing masks and acknowledging the reality that vaccines are unlikely to be widely available until next year.
Redfield has failed to forcefully push back on these attacks. But he is not principally to blame for the CDC’s fall from grace. That responsibility rests squarely with Trump, who is showing how much harm a president can cause by forcing federal agencies to serve his own political purposes. Rather than allow the CDC to do its job of keeping Americans informed about Covid-19, he has prodded the agency to echo his false message that the crisis has passed, that it’s safe to go back to school, to work, to church, to political rallies — maskless and carefree.
Clearly, new leadership is needed, mainly at the White House. If voters can get that job done in November, the good news is that it’s still possible to return the CDC to its former effectiveness. With a new director working for a president who is sensible enough not to meddle inappropriately, the agency could gather detailed data on Covid-19 from the states, maintain an up-to-date national dashboard on the outbreak, and allow its scientists to resume regular public briefings, thereby once again offering Americans a common and reliable source of information about the pandemic.
Congress can help, too, in part by investigating why the CDC produced a faulty coronavirus test at the start of the pandemic. It should also pass legislation to protect the agency’s data-gathering efforts from outside interference — to avoid the kind of chaos that occurred last summer when HHS officials abruptly took over the collection of hospital data on Covid-19 (another move that had to be reversed). Finally, lawmakers should ensure that the CDC’s technical reports are insulated from political meddling, much as reports from the Labor Department, the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics are.
Quite by accident, the Trump administration has taught the country a lesson about how much an effective CDC is needed. Ideally, the agency can be brought back to full strength in time to finally offer some federal leadership in a crisis that has been out of control for too long.