Watching Science Die

Coronavirus
Coronavirus from Wikimedia Commons

Pro Publica’s deep dive into the destruction at the Centers for Disease Control reads like a bad disaster novel: a deadly virus, scientists scrambling to meet the challenge, politicians sabotaging their efforts at every turn. Perhaps the most stark illustration comes from the church directive. The CDC had identified a COVID-19 outbreak at an Arkansas church that caused four deaths. In another superspreader event, 52 of 61 singers at a choir practice got COVID-19, and two died. Singing and chanting were identified as especially high-risk behaviors for spreading the disease. Despite the evidence, in late May President Trump announced that churches were “essential services” and that the CDC would release safety guidelines. Pro Public reports:

“[CDC Dr. Jay] Butler’s team rushed to finalize the guidance for churches, synagogues and mosques that Trump’s aides had shelved in April after battling the CDC over the language. In reviewing a raft of last-minute edits from the White House, Butler’s team rejected those that conflicted with CDC research, including a worrisome suggestion to delete a line that urged congregations to ‘consider suspending or at least decreasing’ the use of choirs.

“On Friday, Trump’s aides called the CDC repeatedly about the guidance, according to emails. ‘Why is it not up?’ they demanded until it was posted on the CDC website that afternoon.

“The next day, a furious call came from the office of the vice president: The White House suggestions were not optional. The CDC’s failure to use them was insubordinate, according to emails at the time.

“Fifteen minutes later, one of Butler’s deputies had the agency’s text replaced with the White House version, the emails show. The danger of singing wasn’t mentioned.”

How could this happen? The story begins years earlier, with the gutting of much of the nation’s public health infrastructure. In 2015, the Obama administration created the Directorate for Global Health and Security and Biodefense within the National Security Council. This office responded to the Ebola crisis, and was designated as the office to focus on global health crises

In 2018, the Trump administration disbanded this office. At that time, the Washington Post reported: 

” The abrupt departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security. Ziemer’s departure, along with the breakup of his team, comes at a time when many experts say the country is already underprepared for the increasing risks of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack….

“Ziemer is a well-respected public health leader who was considered highly effective leading the President’s Malaria Initiative under George W. Bush and Barack Obama before joining the NSC last year. While Palladino said he left ‘on the warmest terms,’ an individual familiar with the specifics behind the reorganization said ‘he was basically pushed out. He struggled to preserve himself and the integrity of his team, and he failed.’

“His exit comes against the backdrop of other administration actions critics say have weakened health security preparedness, including dwindling financing for early preventive action against infectious disease threats abroad.”

Remember the timing. That happened in 2018. 

Public health spending was already far too low for safety:

” Since 2010, spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16% per capita and spending for local health departments has fallen by 18%, according to a KHN and Associated Press analysis of government spending on public health. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeletal workforce for what was once viewed as one of the world’s top public health systems.”

Funding cuts and personnel cuts accelerated under the Trump administration. In the Beijing office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), staffing was cut from 47 to 14 people during the first two years of the Trump administration. 

State and local public health officials faced increasing pressure as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened. Some saw armed protesters outside their homes. Some, fearing for their safety, resigned. 

Meanwhile, the administration continues its anti-science attacks, and its insistence on rewriting the recommendations of doctors and scientists. The damage to the CDC is emblematic of the damage done to public health agencies across the country. The nation and world face the most serious pandemic in a century, and all of us suffer the consequences as politics trumps public health:

“Veteran CDC specialists with global reputations were marginalized, silenced or reassigned — often for simply doing what had always been their job. Some of the agency’s most revered scientists vanished from public view after speaking candidly about the virus.

“The Trump administration is ‘appropriating a public enterprise and making it into an agent of propaganda for a political regime,’ one CDC scientist said in an interview as events unfolded. ‘It’s mind-boggling in the totality of ambition to so deeply undermine what’s so vitally important to the public.’”

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