But the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, usually the leader in disease control efforts, was relegated to a back seat with the children of parents who had been asked to speak.
Whether intentional or not, it was a revealing indication of the esteem that President Donald Trump has for the government’s best health professionals as he pushes the country to overtake the coronavirus. Whatever they say, he is determined to revive the battered economy and revive his chances for re-election, even as hospitalizations and deaths in the United States continue to increase.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States reached three million this week, with more than 130,000 deaths recorded. The push resulted in new equipment shortages as well as long queues at test sites and delayed results.
Nevada was scheduled to apply new restrictions on bars and restaurants in several regions, including Las Vegas and Reno, at midnight on Friday after an outbreak. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said his state is shutting down indoor food service, closing state parks to non-residents, and suspending contact sports in schools in the fall in response to the outbreak. infections within its borders and in neighboring Texas and Arizona.
Yet Trump paints a rosy picture of progress and steps up attacks on his government’s own public health officials, challenging CDC school reopening guidelines and publicly undermining the country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci .
“Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he made a lot of mistakes,” Trump told Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity in a telephone interview on Thursday, partly pointing to the changes in focus regarding the wearing of mask over time.
In his latest report to the CDC, the president accused the Atlanta-based federal agency of “asking schools to do very impractical things” in order to reopen. Recommended measures include spacing students’ desks 6 feet (1.8 meters), staggering departure and arrival times, and teaching children about effective hygiene measures to prevent infection.
After Trump’s scolding comment, Vice President Mike Pence announced Wednesday that the CDC “will issue new guidelines” that “will give our schools completely new tools.”
But agency director Dr. Robert Redfield dismissed criticism that he was bowing to pressure from the president.
“I would like to clarify that what we are proposing are different reference documents. … This is not a revision of the guidelines, “he said the next day. Indeed, the draft documents obtained by the Associated Press seem to confirm Redfield’s assertion, although officials stress that the projects are still under review.
The White House’s assistant press secretary Judd Deere released a statement of support on Friday: “The White House and the CDC have worked together since the very beginning of this pandemic to carry out the president’s highest priority: the health and safety of the American public. ”
But the shutter touched a nerve in growing concern over how the administration put aside, muzzled and seemed to derail the CDC. On several occasions now, the administration has suspended or modified the CDC’s draft directives, or even asked the agency to withdraw the directives it had already published. This included in early March, when administration officials canceled CDC doctors who wanted to advise older, physically frail Americans not to fly on commercial airlines due to the pandemic.
In May, authorities removed recommendations for the reopening of religious events hours after they were published, removing advice that discouraged choir gatherings and shared communion cups.
“We are currently experiencing the greatest public health crisis of the 21st century and the CDC has been ruled out,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. They were “sidelined and their voices – their clear, consistent and transparent voices – were muffled or even completely silenced.”
Although Trump has led the way, he is not alone in sending messages contrary to those of public health officials. At a briefing this week by the White House Coronavirus task force, Pence’s message to those in states like Texas, Florida, California and Arizona, where cases are increasing , was simple: “We think this is something to remember for all Americans, especially in those states that are affected, is: Keep doing what you do. ”
This is not the case, said Dr. Deborah Birx, task force response coordinator. She said these states should instead close bars, end indoor dining and limit gatherings “to come back to our recommendation for phase 1, which was 10 or less.”
Experts warn that the United States suffered from a lack of clear, scientific messages during the pandemic – usually provided by the CDC. But Trump and the White House have kept the agency at bay for the first few days, when it botched the development of a test kit, delaying follow-up efforts.
Trump also became furious in late February when Dr. Nancy Messonnier – a CDC official who then directed the agency’s response to the coronaviruses but has since been sidelined – contradicted statements by other officials that the virus was contained.
“It’s not so much a question of whether it will happen, but rather of knowing exactly when,” said Messonnier, sending stocks plunging and exasperating Trump, even if it turned out to be correct.
Many outside the White House also blame Redfield, who was appointed two years ago, for not having asserted himself and his agency enough. Redfield does not have a close personal relationship with the president and rubbed some of them in the White House the wrong way.
This week, before his harsher comments later, Redfield appeared to bow to Trump’s complaints, saying the CDC guidelines should not “be used as justification to keep the schools closed.”
“This is the opposite of good public health practice,” said Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Washington who studies emerging infectious diseases. “You put guidelines on what is necessary to keep people safe and you expect people to follow them – don’t be disappointed if people follow them. ”
The controversy over the reopening of the school is just the latest chapter in a depressing tale, said Jason Schwartz, a government health policy expert at the Yale School of Public Health.
“This reflects the failure of the CDC director to defend his agency, its scientists and science through the pandemic. And that’s what has led to this crisis in the CDC’s reputation, and it will frankly take years to recover, ”said Schwartz.
Some others expressed more sympathy for Redfield.
Schaffner of Vanderbilt said Redfield’s commitment to public health was clear, but said he lacked the position and strength to influence the thinking of the president.
“His rhetorical style is nothing like what it would take to grow back. And we don’t know how much it could grow without being withdrawn, “he said.
Stobbe reported from New York. Associated Press editors Jeff Amy in Atlanta, Susan Montoya Bryan in New Mexico, and Michelle Price in Nevada contributed to this report.
Image: Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testifies during a Senate Subcommittee hearing on the research, manufacturing and distribution of a vaccine against coronavirus, known as Operation Warp Speed, July 2, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. When President Donald Trump hosted a recent coronavirus roundtable on how to reopen schools safely, the seats around him were filled with parents, teachers and local health officials. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been relegated to a secondary seat on the side. It was a telling indication of how Trump sidelined and undermined federal health experts. (Saul Loeb / Pool via AP)