CDC Scientists Repeatedly Pressured to Downplay the Risks of School Reopenings During Pandemic

Published Oct 7, 2020

What happened: During the summer, top White House officials repeatedly pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to downplay the risks of in-person school.

Why it matters: During the pandemic, we need decisionmakers to rely on the best available scientific information to slow the spread of disease and provide parents and educators accurate information about risks. It is dereliction of duty when the government withholds and manipulates scientific information at the expense of the health and safety of children, parents, teachers, maintenance workers, and other school staff. Thousands of cases of COVID-19 across the country may have occurred as a result of this faulty guidance.

According to an investigation by the New York Times, numerous top White House officials engaged in a strategy of pressuring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists to present data and information that had only one takeaway message—that the pandemic does not pose a danger if schools resume in-person classes. In a previous attack on science, the White House forced the CDC to rewrite its science-based guidance document on the reopening of schools to downplay the risk of the virus to school-age children. However, the New York Times’ investigation reveals that White House staff went beyond this.

Specifically, three anti-science actions occurred. First, Vice President’s Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, repeatedly asked other staffers to pressure the CDC to produce more reports and charts showing a decline in COVID-19 cases among young people. This also included attempts by Short and junior staffers to bypass the CDC and search for any data that would support their political agenda, which would be presented at White House briefings. In one instance in late June, White House officials asked CDC officials for data in “a snazzy, easy-to-read document” that could show the low risk of infection and death for school-age children. They wanted the CDC officials to change a previous bar graph they made, which showed the number of deaths from COVID-19 by different age groups, and redo the normal category of people under 25 years old to a category of people under 18 years old, in an apparent effort to show that school-age children have a low risk of death from COVID-19.

Second, Dr. Deborah Birx took a direct role in pushing the CDC to incorporate language from another health agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHA), into their guidance document. Birx pushed the CDC’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, to have the CDC incorporate language from SAMHA “as background in the introduction section” in the CDC’s guidance document for schools. SAMHA, which used a less robust approach than the CDC, created a document that stated that children are unlikely to spread the virus and that school closures could potentially lead to long-term mental health effects in children. While there are valid concerns about the mental health effects on children when schools are closed, CDC scientists were greatly concerned about this political interference. CDC scientists pointed out numerous errors in the SAMHA document and worried that it would downplay the risks of the novel coronavirus to school-age children. Much of this language from Birx ended in the introduction of the final version, which greatly alarmed CDC officials.

Third, top White House officials made major last minutes edits to a CDC document against the wishes of CDC scientists and officials. This may constitute a violation of the CDC’s scientific integrity policy since the CDC’s “Authorship Policy” explicitly states that the authors of a scientific document approve the “final version to be published.” Just hours before the rewritten school guidance document was to be published, top White House officials – including Mark Meadows, the chief of staff; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser; Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council; and Stephen Miller, a White House policy adviser – were allowed to make “critical edits” to the document. This led to the addition of language in the document that CDC officials had previously objected to, that the novel coronavirus was less deadly to children than the seasonal flu.

White House officials used several tactics to sideline scientists on issue of school reopenings – by pressuring scientists to present manipulated data, ignoring the concerns of scientists, denying scientists the right of last review of their scientific work, forcing inaccurate information into a CDC document, and retracting a scientific document and ordering the rewriting of it. Decisionmakers and the public need accurate, unbiased scientific information to make good decisions on how to respond to the pandemic and keep themselves and their families safe. When the government chooses to sideline science, the public will ultimately pay the price and during a deadly pandemic the price is on the order of thousands more people who will become sick, hospitalized, and die.