When the history of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is written, “2020 will emerge as perhaps the darkest chapter in its 74 years,” ProPublica reports in a long, detailed look at how “an agency that eradicated smallpox globally and wiped out polio in the United States” became “a target of anger, scorn, and even pity.”
Amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, the CDC was largely neutered through unprecedented and injurious political interference from a White House determined to prioritize President Trump’s message over public health, ProPublica and The Associated Press document. CDC Director Robert Redfield was browbeaten into submission, and world-renowned CDC disease warriors who needed a street fighter got instead “the nicest grandfather you can imagine,” a senior health official told ProPublica.
In March, Trump’s hardline immigration czar Stephen Miller urged the CDC to use its quarantine powers to shut the U.S.-Mexico border to all migrants, then had a Health and Human Services Department lawyer send a draft proposal to Dr. Martin Cetron, the CDC’s veteran director of global migration and quarantine. “Cetron refused to sign off on the order,” ProPublica reports, furiously telling a colleague “it’s just morally wrong to use a public authority that has never, ever, ever been used this way.” When Cetron refused, ProPublica notes, “Redfield signed the order.”
Even before COVID-19, the Trump administration broke longstanding norms, naming a political appointee CDC chief of staff. But that appointee, Kyle McGowan, “went native” and “became increasingly protective of the CDC’s senior scientists,” ProPublica reports. “McGowan reached his breaking point when Redfield asked him to stop the deportation of a dog,” Socrates, brought home by a Peace Corps volunteer without a verified rabies shot. The volunteer’s social media campaign caught the White House’s attention.
As the pandemic raged, “McGowan spent an hour and a half on the phone with the HHS general counsel and other senior officials to figure out how to make an exception for a dog,” ProPublica reports. “All the while, he told colleagues, his mind kept returning to the fact that the same administration was using the CDC’s quarantine power to deport thousands of children at the border with Mexico.” McGowan resigned in August.
The White House replaced him, AP reports, with two political operatives whose main task is “keeping an eye on Dr. Robert Redfield.”
Read more about the degradation of the CDC at The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and ProPublica.
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