White House Buries CDC Report on COVID-19

Published May 20, 2020

What happened: The White House blocked the release of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that provided detailed science-based recommendations on how to reopen up communities safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why it matters: When the work of federal scientists is sidelined for political purposes, the public is less informed on science-based issues that could put our health at-risk. The decision of how and when to open up communities rests primarily in the hands of state and local authorities and they need detailed guidance from the public health experts on how to do this safely without leading to an increased death toll. The blocked CDC report had this important information.

According to AP news, White House officials halted the release of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report containing guidance on reopening the country, telling CDC officials that the report would never “see the light of day.” The CDC’s report, titled “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” was designed to provide local authorities with step-by-step instructions based on the best available science on how best to reopen. The report provided specifics on how a variety of local institutions – such as religious centers, restaurants, schools, and day care centers – can mitigate the threat posed by COVID-19 when making decisions about reopening. After AP News broke this story, the White House partially reversed its decision and asked the CDC to revive certain portions of the report for review and approval. On May 19, the CDC was finally able to publish the report; however the White House required several changes, including the elimination of guidance for houses of worship.

The report was set to be released on May 1 but was blocked from publication by White House officials just one day prior, on April 30. While the White House claims that the report was shelved because CDC leadership did not get the chance to review, this is completely at odds with the internal emails. As early as April 10, the CDC Director Robert Redfield asked White House officials to review the report. CDC officials repeatedly shared information and sought approval of the report from the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, members of President Trump’s inner circle (including Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway), and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The decision to shelve the CDC report appears to have come from some of the highest levels of the White House. On April 26, just five days before the report was supposed to be published, the CDC chief of staff emailed OMB officials saying that the CDC still had not yet received word from the Trump administration on the report’s status. One of the OMB officials involved in this email chain was Nancy Beck, who has strong connections to the chemical industry and, during her time at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carried out a number of actions that fell out of line with the best available science. Nancy Beck and another OMB official told the CDC that the White House Principals Committee, a group of top White House officials, was currently reviewing the report. The group had explicitly forbade the CDC from even mentioning the report in any public-facing materials until the CDC had heard back from them. CDC officials repeatedly emailed administration officials over the next few days on the report’s status, but were finally told on April 30 that the report’s guidance measures and decision trees would not “ever see the light of day.”

When comparing the CDC report with a similar guidance document released by the White House, three major differences emerge. First, the CDC report is much more cautious about the resumption of nonessential travel, only advising its “consideration” after 42 days of declining COVID-19 cases. On the other hand, the White House’s “Opening Up America Again” plan recommends the “minimization” of travel in early phases of reopening and the resumption of non-essential travel after 28 days of declining COVID-19. Second, unlike the White House’s plan, the CDC’s report contains specifics on supporting marginalized communities during the pandemic, particularly households with limited English literacy, low-income populations, people without health insurance, and people who have become sick or have lost wages during the crisis. Third, the White House’s plan lacks the CDC’s science-based statement that a resurgence of COVID-19 cases is likely to occur after reopening and therefore local authorities need to continually monitor and plan for this outcome.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the worst public health crisis seen in decades. The CDC is hearing daily from state and county health departments on the need for scientifically valid information in order to make evidence-based decisions during the pandemic. However, as was documented in a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the CDC’s ability to communicate with the public has been severely restricted under the Trump administration as compared to prior administrations. By burying this report, the White House is engaging in a strategy that prioritizes political considerations over allowing the public to hear from federal scientists. The Trump administration is diminishing the ability of the public to obtain needed scientific information during a deadly pandemic, which could endanger the health and safety of millions of people.