American Oversight recently published more than 11,000 pages of calendar records from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield covering March 2018 to March 2019.
We’ve been looking through these calendars and other public records for meetings or messages that could provide additional context on the Trump administration’s early response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
While Redfield’s calendars show briefings and presentations about the U.S.’s preparedness for a global pandemic, the actions of the White House and other top Trump administration officials reflected far less concern. In May 2018, around the same time Redfield apparently attended a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic, President Donald Trump and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic team, a decision widely seen as having hindered the government’s response to the outbreak. More recent actions also reflect this failure of preparation — according to reporting by Reuters, the administration eliminated a key CDC public health position intended to keep an eye on disease outbreaks in China months before the coronavirus pandemic began. And in January and February, as the president and his allies in Congress were downplaying the danger of the disease, U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing classified warnings about a likely pandemic.
The CDC calendars also contain indications that a regular flu/pandemic briefing had been held monthly in 2018 and then switched to quarterly in early 2019, as well as a number of meetings with Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, whom President Donald Trump named on March 13 the new “czar” in charge of coordinating testing for the coronavirus. Below is some of what we found while looking through the records.
On April 11, 2018, Redfield received an invitation for a “Pandemic Flu Exercise Briefing.” The description of the briefing said that it would focus “on the emergency response process at CDC to include discussion of past responses, including H1N1, and future potential responses.” The substance of an attachment, titled “CDC Pandemic Influenza Function Exercise: September 12-14, 2018, Briefing to CDC Director,” is largely redacted.
In May 2018, the CDC and Emory University held a symposium to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Spanish flu, called “100 Years of Influence: Pandemics and Practice: 1918–2018.” On the agenda was a presentation titled “Current Gaps; United States and Local Public Health Pandemic Readiness,” as well as a roundtable discussion titled “Are We Ready to Respond to the Next Pandemic; USG Preparedness Posture in 2018.”
Later that month, there was a dinner in Geneva during the World Health Assembly hosted by “the Secretary” (possibly then-HHS Secretary Tom Price). The dinner was “focused on pandemic preparedness and outbreak response, as well as relationship building” with a “small, informal discussion on national challenges to addressing infectious diseases.”
In July 2018, the CDC scheduled a presentation on “Clade X” from a Dr. Tom Inglesby of Johns Hopkins. According to the records, Clade X “was a day-long pandemic tabletop exercise” that “illustrated high-level strategic decisions and policies need to prevent a severe pandemic or diminish its consequences should prevention fail.” Redfield was invited to give opening remarks.
In October, questions and answers prepared for a session at the Milken Future of Health Summit included a question about Redfield’s priorities at the CDC. Redfield’s answer was “responding to disease outbreaks, eliminating diseases, and ensuring global health security,” and included the statement, “Globally, I’m deeply concerned about pandemic and seasonal flu.”
That same month, Redfield was also receiving a monthly “Flu/Pandemic Briefing.” But just a few months later, a note on a January 2019 briefing said that after February, “these briefings will be scheduled quarterly.”
American Oversight has filed more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on the Trump administration’s mismanaged response to the coronavirus health emergency, seeking information about the failed testing rollout, lobbyist communications and the White House’s communications strategy. You can read more about that investigation and look for updates here.
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