By Anita Desikan, Union of Concerned Scientists
We are being forced to endure a chilling situation. The White Househas taken control over the voice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the COVID-19 pandemic and, at times, has used its own voice to actively undermine the CDC’s recommendations. A similar egregious situation happened before. In days following the 9/11 attacks, the White House took control over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) messaging and pushed a narrative saying that the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe. In hindsight, we know that the results of this 9/11 decision were disastrous – thousands were sickened by the very air that their government had called safe.
What will be the repercussions of the White House robbing the CDC of their voice at the exact time when we all need them the most?
There is no doubt that this is currently happening. For instance, the CDC’s new guidance measures recommending that people wear masks in public – a message which requires great nuance to deliver – was issued on April 3 by President Trump. Immediately after saying that the CDC’s guidance “may be good” advice, President Trump then dismissed the idea of donning a mask himself, thereby undercutting an important CDC guidance based on the best available science.
History may prove to be best teacher of showing what happens when the White House strips the voice of a health agency during a public health emergency.
Muzzling scientists also occurred during 9/11
When the planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, the EPA issued a series of public statements in the following days that claimed that the air near Ground Zone was safe to breathe. The reassuring public statements however were not in line with best available scientific evidence at the time, and in fact were in conflict with internal agency data suggesting that the air may prove to be hazardous. For instance, in early October 2001, at about the same time that people were allowed to return to Manhattan, the EPA told New York City’s health department that there were concerns about workers exposed to hazardous air conditions at the World Trade Center site.
What is clear is that, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the EPA’s press releases were required to undergo clearance check by White House officials. A 2003 report by the EPA’s inspector general details how the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) pressed the EPA to “add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones” from agency press releases. On September 12, 2001, the EPA’s administrator issued a memo announcing that “all statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC [National Security Council] before they are released.” The New York Postreported that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was “the final decision maker” regarding the release of information by the EPA. These reassuring statements ultimately proved to be untrue – the air was littered with thousands of tons of hazardous substances such as asbestos and lead, which tragically led to long-term illnesses in thousands of first responders and New York residents.
We can’t let the CDC lose its voice
In the aftermath of 9/11, the White House sidelined science for a message that was based on politics, a decision that led to thousands of more illnesses and deaths. The White House’s decision to take away the CDC’s voice will likely prove to have similar repercussions. The public deserves to have unfettered access to scientists at CDC. The public deserves to hear from the experts on what the latest science tells us is the best way to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
The CDC is providing unprecedented value in helping combat the threat posed by COVID-19. The agency’s duties and entire purpose of being is to fight health threats like infectious disease outbreaks, and normally their voice captivates the hearts and minds of those who listen to their scientifically-backed words. As STAT News remarked recently, the CDC is considered the gold standard around the world, so much so that public health agencies across Asia, Africa, and Europe are called “CDC,” even when the acronym is meaningless in their home language.
With the CDC losing their voice, we are forced to hear its words filtered through a group of people with their own political agenda, through an administration who has attacked science over 130 times in the last three years. We need to pressure the Trump administration to give the CDC their voice back. Because the continued silence of one of the world’s most prominent centers for fighting disease will likely prove to be devastating.