CDC Emails from Spring Show Growing Gap Between Scientists and White House

Documents that American Oversight obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests shed new light on the inner workings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the early days of the pandemic response. The documents are noteworthy in light of the growing gap between the CDC’s scientific expertise and the White House’s politicized pandemic response.

Among the records are confidential World Health Organization situation reports that were shared by CDC officials with one another, including one on March 6, 2020, that detailed the problems caused by travel bans and the lack of testing. 

When sharing the report over email, CDC staff appear to have highlighted a portion that read: “WHO remains very concerned with silent areas, both countries that have not reported a case and large countries that have reported a small number but geographically separated cases. … WHO is worried that this may represent significant under-reporting. WHO believes the most common reason is because of lack of available testing.” 

At this point, community spread of the coronavirus was already quietly occurring in various parts of the United States. Lack of testing quickly became one of the most important, and long-lasting, issues in the United States’ response to the pandemic. And of course, the need for testing was apparently lost on President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly endorsed decreasing testing, even saying that “we’re creating trouble” by testing. 

Officials had also highlighted the sentence “WHO recommends that Member States not institute travel restrictions against citizens of other states based on the COVID-19 status in the other country.” In February, the president had instituted a ban on foreign nationals traveling from China and one on those traveling from Iran. At the date of these emails, those bans remained the primary countermeasure the Department of Health and Human Services had taken against the coronavirus, and the content of the reports shows how the administration’s response was not aligned with the global community. 

The documents also suggest that the CDC initially had plans in the spring to promote its recommendation of face masks with a televised briefing. On April 3, the CDC recommended that Americans should wear “non-medical, cloth masks” when they need to be in public places to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Prior to this recommendation, the CDC had only recommended that those with symptoms wear masks. 

Two days before, Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, had sent an email about masks, saying, “POTUS acknowledge[d] the issue and offered language that was fairly permissive.” Trump himself didn’t take the recommendation seriously, and even said he would not be wearing a mask himself. 

On the day this recommendation went public, Michele Bonds, director of the CDC Division of Public Affairs, sent a “proposed press plan for the release of the face covering recommendation” to Schuchat. 

Schuchat responded to the email saying, “We have a lot of information that can merit a telebriefing, whether Saturday or Monday or Tuesday.”

But the CDC never held a telebriefing on the issue, and in fact according to the CDC website did not hold such a telebriefing at all in April. On April 7, Bonds emailed Schuchat that the telebriefing was “off.” Schuchat pointed to other ways of getting information to the public, including the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs) and social media. 

Those MMWRs are the same health reports that political appointees at HHS had been meddling with in recent months. Given what we know now of White House interference both with the CDC and with other plans to promote mask-wearing, the canceled telebriefing raises new questions.