Four of the nation’s former top health officials took an extraordinary step Tuesday to combat the Trump administration’s efforts to disregard and politicize guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking out in a scathing Washington Post op-ed.
The four former CDC directors warned against what they called a “tragic indictment” of the CDC’s efforts as President Donald Trump and top coronavirus task force officials seek to reopen the nation’s schools amid the raging pandemic. Trump has said he will “pressure” governors to reopen schools.
“Unfortunately, their sound science is being challenged with partisan potshots, sowing confusion and mistrust at a time when the American people need leadership, expertise and clarity. These efforts have even fueled a backlash against public health officials across the country: Public servants have been harassed, threatened and forced to resign when we need them most. This is unconscionable and dangerous,” they wrote.
Public health experts, they said: “Face two opponents: covid-19, but also political leaders and others attempting to undermine” the CDC.
The op-ed’s authors, Drs. Tom Frieden, Jeffrey Koplan, David Satcher and Richard Besser, served in both Republican and Democratic administrations for a combined 15 years.
“We cannot recall over our collective tenure a single time when political pressure led to a change in the interpretation of scientific evidence,” the wrote.
White House spokesman Judd Deere called the CDC the nation’s “trusted health protection agency” and praised its work throughout the pandemic.
“The White House and CDC have been working together in partnership since the very beginning of this pandemic to carry out the President’s highest priority: the health and safety of the American public.,” he said in a statement. “We encourage all Americans to continue to follow the CDC’s guidelines and use best-practices they have learned, such as social distancing, face coverings, and good hygiene, to maintain public health and continue our Transition to Greatness.”
School reopening has emerged as one of the trickiest – and most sensitive – issues as the nation looks to adopt a sense of normalcy under the pandemic. Some schools have made multiple plans so they can stay flexible just a few weeks before the start of the 2020-21 academic year.
The CDC recommends spacing desks with social distancing, facial coverings “as feasible,” avoiding sharing equipment, games, and supplies, and shutting down communal areas like lunchrooms and playgrounds, among other guidance.
But Trump has lambasted that guidance as “very tough” and “expensive.” During an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash Sunday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to say whether school districts should follow the CDC’s guidelines. Vice President Mike Pence urged the nation’s governors to make plans to reopen in a conference call Monday, but conceded that plans should be driven at the state and local level.
And though the President has threatened to cut federal funding to schools that do not reopen, California’s two largest school districts, San Diego and Los Angeles, announced Monday they will not open for in-person instruction in the fall.
The four public health experts said in the op-ed that last week’s debate surrounding school reopening showed that “repeated efforts to subvert sound public health guidelines introduce chaos and uncertainty while unnecessarily putting lives at risk.”
They said the CDC guidance calls “for all of our nation to work together so as many schools as possible can open as safely as possible” and called its undermining from some administration officials “extraordinary.”
Their criticism did not name Trump, with the exception of its headline: “We ran the CDC. No president ever politicized its science the way Trump has.”
Fighting the pandemic without listening to medical experts, they warned, “is like fighting blindfolded.”
“It is not too late to give the CDC its proper role in guiding this response. But the clock is ticking,” they said.
CNN’s Jamie Gumbrecht contributed to this report.