What happened: White House officials instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to delete certain science-based sections of a COVID-19 guidance measure for communities of faith. The CDC guidance was meant to help religious communities navigate decisions around holding in-person gatherings while mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19 among their staff and congregations.
Why it matters: Government officials denying the public of science-based information can have serious repercussions on their health and safety. Issues of faith and religious gatherings hold fundamental importance to a large number of Americans and the White House’s actions to ignore the science of how to keep religious communities safe needlessly endangers the lives of millions of people.
In late May, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were instructed by the Trump administration to edit out key scientific recommendations from a guidance document detailing how houses of worship can more safely operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, within one day of posting the recommendations, the White House demanded that the CDC remove the sections that described the potential health risks associated with choir singing and sharing cups. Two Trump administration officials told the Washington Post that the motivation behind deleting these science-backed statements stemmed from political concerns, that is, the Trump administration was afraid of alienating evangelical communities and therefore wanted the CDC’s recommendations to be less restrictive.
In the original version, the CDC recommended that communities of faith “consider suspending or at least decreasing use of choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition. The act of singing may contribute to transmission of COVID-19, possibly through emission of aerosols.” The guidance measure also listed a number of items that are often shared between community members while attending a religious gathering, such as prayer rugs, prayer books, and shared cups, and recommended limiting the sharing of these objects. In the version edited by the White House, the entire portion on choir singing was removed, along with “shared cups” as a potential source of infectious spread.
A CDC report issued in mid-May described a situation in Washington State where the source of a COVID-19 outbreak was traced back to a church choir. One member of the church choir, who was showing symptoms of COVID-19, attended a 2.5 hour choir practice session and infected 87 percent of the choir group with COVID-19, leading to three hospitalizations and two deaths. CDC scientists concluded that the very act of singing, particularly in close proximity and for an extended time, might have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.
Since religious gatherings have previously led to COVID-19 outbreaks in places like Arkansas and South Korea, it is imperative that religious communities have access to the latest scientific research on how best to hold in-person gatherings without harming their staff and congregation. However, this is the second time during the pandemic that the White House has directly ordered the CDC to suppress the publication of science-backed recommendations meant to help religious communities. At the same time, the Trump administration has been pushing for the opening up of houses of worships, especially Christian churches, for what appear to be politically-motivated reasons. The Trump administration’s attempt to suppress scientific guidelines for religious communities further endangers the health and safety of those communities and all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.