ProPublica has another explosive report, this time about how the Centers for Disease Control, once highly admired all around the world for the skill and expertise of its scientists in dealing with global health problems, has become a shadow of its former self, with career scientists dismayed at how the Trump administration has undermined and belittled its efforts. The feckless leadership of Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee, has been ineffective in defending its institutional honor. ProPublica bases its article on internal emails and reports and interviews with CDC officials.
When the next history of the CDC is written, 2020 will emerge as perhaps the darkest chapter in its 74 years, rivaled only by its involvement in the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which federal doctors withheld medicine from poor Black men with syphilis, then tracked their descent into blindness, insanity and death.
With more than 216,000 people dead this year, most Americans know the low points of the current chapter already. A vaunted agency that was once the global gold standard of public health has, with breathtaking speed, become a target of anger, scorn and even pity.
How could an agency that eradicated smallpox globally and wiped out polio in the United States have fallen so far?
Senior CDC staff describe waging battles that are as much about protecting science from the White House as protecting the public from COVID-19. It is a war that they have, more often than not, lost.
Employees spoke openly about their “hill to die on” — the political interference that would prompt them to leave. Yet again and again, they surrendered and did as they were told. It wasn’t just worries over paying mortgages or forfeiting the prestige of the job. Many feared that if they left and spoke out, the White House would stop consulting the CDC at all, and would push through even more dangerous policies.
To some veteran scientists, this acquiescence was the real sign that the CDC had lost its way. One scientist swore repeatedly in an interview and said, “The cowardice and the caving are disgusting to me.”
Collectively, the interviews and documents show an insular, rigorous agency colliding head-on with an administration desperate to preserve the impression that it had the pandemic under control.
Once seen as an apolitical bulwark, the CDC endured meddling on multiple fronts by officials with little or no public health experience, from Trump’s daughter Ivanka to Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s immigration crackdown. A shifting and mysterious cast of political aides and private contractors — what one scientist described as young protégés of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “wearing blue suits with red ties and beards” — crowded into important meetings about key policy decisions.
Agency insiders lost faith that CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee who’d been at the agency only two years, would, or could, hold the line on science. One division leader refused to sign what he viewed as an ill-conceived and xenophobic Trump administration order. Redfield ultimately signed it himself.
Now, 10 months into the crisis, many fear the CDC has lost the most important currency of public health: trust, the confidence in experts that persuades people to wear masks for the public good, to refrain from close-packed gatherings, to take a vaccine.
Today, some CDC veterans worry that it could take a generation or longer to regain that trust.
Longtime CDC employees confess that they have lost trust in what their own agency tells the public.
Another dismayed veteran who works with local health officials did something he had never done before. He told them to ignore his own agency’s guidance. The agency reversed the much-criticized recommendation about testing a month later, but the damage was done. After more than a decade at the CDC, the veteran decided to quit.
“It’s just a disappointment,” he said. “People’s reaction now at other agencies, at state and local public health agencies, when the CDC comes out with a recommendation, they are going to ask: ‘Is that the truth? Or is that what you were told to say?’”
The whole article makes for sobering reading. Institutional trust is easy to destroy and very hard to rebuild. The contempt the Trump administration has for science and its undermining of the CDC is undoubtedly the cause of many needless deaths.