September 14, 2020

HHS political appointees in recent months have asked CDC to change, delay, or stop the release of the agency's weekly reports on the new coronavirus, according to emails obtained by Politico and interviews with current and former federal health officials by several news outlets.

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US new coronavirus cases surpass 6.4M, deaths top 191K

The reports come as U.S. officials as of Monday morning reported a total of 6,538,000 cases of the novel coronavirus virus since the country's epidemic began—up from 6,416,700 cases reported as of Friday morning.

According to data from the New York Times, the rates of newly reported cases are "staying high" in seven states that have had comparatively high case rates, meaning a daily average of at least 15 newly reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week. Those states are Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the rates of newly reported cases over the past seven days are "going down" in Alabama, Guam, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Tennessee, which had previously seen elevated case rates.

In six states that have had comparatively lower case rates, rates are now "going up," according to the Times. Those states are Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

In the remaining states and U.S. territories, rates are "staying low," according to the Times' analysis.

U.S. officials as of Monday morning also reported a total of 193,950 deaths linked to the coronavirus since the country's epidemic began—up from 191,628 deaths reported as of Friday morning.

HHS political appointees seek to influence CDC reports, according to emails and interviews

As the coronavirus continues to spread, CDC publishes regular data updates through the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), which are considered authoritative public health reports and authored by career scientists and public health specialists.

To ensure the integrity of the reports, CDC has historically allowed HHS' political appointees to see them before publication but not to change the content. However, Politico on Friday reported that HHS political appointees have recently asked CDC officials to amend, postpone, or stop the release of reports.

For example, Paul Alexander—an assistant professor of health research methods, evidence, and impact at McMaster University and a senior adviser to Michael Caputo, whom the White House appointed to serve as HHS' assistant secretary for public affairs—earlier this year asked CDC Director Robert Redfield to change the publication process to allow him to "tweak" the agency's reports before publication, Politico reports.

Alexander told Redfield and other officials, "The reports must be read by someone outside of CDC like myself, and we cannot allow the reporting to go on as it has been, for it is outrageous. It's lunacy. Nothing to go out unless I read and agree with the findings how they CDC, wrote it and I tweak it to ensure it is fair and balanced and 'complete.'"

In an email obtained by Politico and confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of the exchange, Alexander claimed CDC scientists were trying to "hurt the president" with the agency's reports, which he described as "hit pieces on the administration."

In addition, political appointees raised concerns about CDC's MMWRs related to hydroxychloroquine and on coronavirus infections among children at an overnight camp in Georgia, which ultimately delayed their publication, according to Politico.

The report on children's coronavirus infections suggested children of all ages can contract the virus and spread it to other people, which complicated the Trump administration's push to reopen schools. "That report gave them a lot of grief," a former official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Washington Post said. "But you can't change facts."

The Post reported that Caputo on Saturday said that “[m]ost often, the MMWRs are [issued] for purely scientific reasons," but he argued that "in an election year, and in the time of Covid-19, it's no longer unanimously scientific. There's political content."

In a separate interview with the New York Times, Caputo defended Alexander's actions.

"He digs into these MMWRs and makes his position known, and his position isn't popular with the career scientists sometimes," Caputo said. "That's called science. Disagreement is science. Nobody has been ever ordered to do anything. Some changes have been accepted, most have been rejected. It's my understanding that that's how science is played."

Fauci says vaccine may not be available until 2021

Separately, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a panel discussion with doctors from Harvard Medical School said Americans will "need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter because it's not going to be easy" as the country's coronavirus epidemic and flu season collide.

Fauci also noted that clinical trials for a new coronavirus are "progressing very well," but he does not expect a vaccine to be available until the end of the year or early 2021.

In an Instagram Live interview with the actress Jennifer Garner on Wednesday, Fauci said, "If we get a really good vaccine and just about everybody gets vaccinated, you'll have a degree of immunity in the general community that I think you can walk into a theater without a mask and feel like it's comfortable that you're not going to be at risk." However, he said that will likely not happen until mid- to late 2021 (Sun, Washington Post, 9/12; Weiland, New York Times, 9/12; Diamond, Politico, 9/12; Castronuovo, The Hill, 9/10; Oprysko, Politico, 9/11; Bahr, New York Times, 9/11; New York Times [1], 9/14;  New York Times [2], 9/14).

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