CDC Pressured to Align Weekly COVID-19 Reports with Trump Administration's Pandemic Messaging
On September 11, 2020, Politico reported that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had been reviewing and editing the COVID-19 “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports” (MMWR) published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since April 2020. According to the report, HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo and his aides pressured the CDC Director, Robert Redfield, to retroactively edit the weekly reports or delay their release. In one instance, Caputo and his aides requested that the CDC change a report which they believed overstated the risk of COVID-19 infection. In another, they sought to delay the release of a report addressing the prescription of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug espoused by President Trump as an effective treatment without substantial evidence.
Redfield has reportedly also come under pressure from Paul Alexander, Assistant Professor of health research at McMaster University, who Caputo appointed as his own scientific advisor. In an August 8 email to Redfield, Alexander wrote that the “CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration” and ordered Redfield to halt publication of new MMWR reports while requesting his approval to make line edits to reports before publishing.
The CDC has reportedly resisted pressure to retroactively edit past MMWR reports, but has allowed Caputo to edit new reports before publication. Public health experts have expressed concern that the reports may be being politicized. Those concerns have been rejected by Caputo, who said in a statement: “our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic - not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC.”
On October 5, 2020, Politico reported on an email exchange between Paul Alexander and other public health officials raising concerns over the language used in a CDC report addressing death rates from COVID-19 in the pediatric population. Alexander and his colleagues questioned the use of the term ‘pediatric’ to refer to persons under the age of 21 (a definition in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics terminology) and argued that the age threshold should be lowered to 18. As a result of the email exchange, the title of the report was edited to replace the words “Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults” with “Persons” and the word “pediatric” was removed from the draft summary, where it was previously used three times.
Politico reported that one current and two former CDC officials found Alexander’s email exchange concerning, and that the changes “appeared to minimize the risks of the coronavirus to children by making the report’s focus on children less clear.” Alexander did not respond to a request for comment on the emails, though Politico reported that Alex Azar, HHS secretary, said he “did not support Alexander’s harshly worded demands to edit the reports” when speaking to a congressional committee.