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September 15, 2020

Top HHS official accuses CDC scientists of conspiring against Trump

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    Amid reports of political interference with CDC's scientific publications, a top HHS official on Sunday accused CDC's career scientists of "sedition."

    Meanwhile, House subcommittee on Monday said it would investigate whether HHS political appointees interfered with CDC's weekly reports on the new coronavirus.

    How Covid-19 is changing the future of the health care industry

    US new coronavirus cases near 6.6M, deaths top 194K

    The news comes as U.S. officials as of Tuesday morning reported a total of 6,574,800 cases of the novel coronavirus virus since the country's epidemic began—up from 6,538,000 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, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin.

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

    In eight states that have had comparatively low case rates, rates are now "going up," according to the Times. Those states are Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, 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 Tuesday morning also reported a total of 194,397 deaths linked to the coronavirus since the country's epidemic began—up from 193,950 deaths reported as of Friday morning.

    Top health official accuses CDC's career scientists of 'sedition'

    Michael Caputo, whom the White House appointed to serve as HHS' assistant secretary for public affairs, in a Facebook Live chat on Sunday asserted—without offering evidence—that CDC scientists had committed "sedition" in their handling of the pandemic. He also advised Trump's supporters to prepare for an armed insurrection after the upcoming presidential election.

    A 26-minute video of the statements—originally reported by the Times and subsequently confirmed as legitimate by Caputo to the Washington Post—followed news on Friday that Caputo and other HHS political appointees have asked CDC officials to amend, postpone, or stop the release of the agency's regular data updates on the new coronavirus via its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

    In the new video, Caputo said CDC had a "resistance unit" aimed at undermining Trump, according to the Washington Post. Without providing evidence, Caputo claimed scientists "deep in the bowels of the CDC" have given up on science and have become "political animals."

    He said that CDC scientists "haven't gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops" to plan "how they're going to attack Donald Trump next. There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president."

    Caputo also spoke about the upcoming presidential election, saying—again without offering evidence—that "there are hit squads being trained all over this country" to mount an armed opposition against Trump if he wins a second term. He claimed that when Trump, after winning the election, "refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin," adding, "The drills that you've seen are nothing."

    Caputo also referenced his own mental health during the video, saying that his physical health was declining and that his "mental health has definitely failed." He also cited the growing death toll amid the pandemic, telling viewers, "You are not waking up every morning and talking about dead Americans."

    In response to the video, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and other Democratic lawmakers called for Caputo to be fired. However, according to the Times, there have been "no obvious signs" from the Trump administration that Caputo was in danger of losing his position.

    HHS in a statement Monday evening said, "Caputo is a critical, integral part of the president's coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic."

    However, according to the Post, the White House declined to comment.

    For his part, Caputo on Monday reaffirmed the sentiments he expressed in the video, saying in a statement, "Since joining the administration, my family and I have been continually threatened and in and out of criminal court dealing with harassment prosecutions. This weighs heavily on us, and we deeply appreciate the friendship and support of President Trump as we address these matters and keep our children safe."

    House subcommittee to investigate whether HHS political appointees interfered with CDC reports

    Relatedly, on Monday, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis said they are investigating whether HHS political appointees interfered with CDC's MMWR reports.

    The subcommittee's Democratic majority in a letter sent to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CDC's Director Robert Redfield said their investigation seeks to determine to what extent HHS political appointees influenced CDC's reports and other efforts to address the country's coronavirus epidemic.

    In addition, the investigation aims to determine the impact of the political interference on CDC's mission, whether political appointees are currently interfering with CDC's reports, and what steps Congress "may need to take to stop [any interference] before more Americans die needlessly," the letter states.

    For the investigation, the subcommittee is requesting documents from Caputo, Alexander, Azar, and HHS public relations aide Brad Traverse, as well as communications sent or received by Redfield related to the reports of political interference, according to the letter.

    The subcommittee also is asking for transcribed interviews with career and political CDC and HHS officials—including MMWR's editor-in-chief Charlotte Kent, CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, and acting CDC deputy chief of staff Trey Moeller—which The Hill reports is "a rare move" by a congressional committee (AP/Modern Healthcare, 9/14; Weixel, The Hill, 9/14; Abutaleb et al., Washington Post, 9/14; LaFraniere, New York Times, 9/14; Weixel, The Hill, 9/14; New York Times, 9/14).

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