About a week before last month's elections, NBC News reported on conditions inside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It wasn't a pretty picture: CDC insiders described a "toxic" atmosphere, created by, among other things, political pressure on the agency.
One veteran CDC staffer said, "The house is not only on fire, we're standing in ashes."
There was no reason to see comments like these as hyperbolic. Just last week, we learned of testimony from a CDC official who said she was directed to get rid of evidence after a Trump appointee allegedly tried to exert influence over a key agency report. The appointee who reportedly demanded changes, Paul Alexander, used to be a part-time assistant professor at a Canadian university. Why the White House brought him in to review COVID-related work at the CDC, trying to align reports with Donald Trump's political messaging, has never been clear.
But this was not an isolated incident. The New York Times reported today:
Kyle McGowan, a former chief of staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and his deputy, Amanda Campbell, were installed in 2018 as two of the youngest political appointees in the history of the world's premier public health agency, young Republicans returning to their native Georgia to dream jobs. But what they witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic this year in the C.D.C.'s leadership suite on the 12-floor headquarters here shook them: Washington's dismissal of science, the White House's slow suffocation of the agency's voice, the meddling in its messages and the siphoning of its budget.
Their perspective is striking. For example, during the deadly pandemic, the Trump White House sent edits to CDC reports from people who had no business trying to edit CDC reports.
Kellyanne Conway, for example, recommended changes to guidelines on choirs and communion in faith communities, while Ivanka Trump made suggestions on guidelines related to schools.
As the Trump-appointed former CDC chief of staff told the Times, "Every time that the science clashed with the messaging, messaging won."
Campbell added that when the crisis began earlier this year, she was confident the CDC was prepared because it had the best scientists in the world at its disposal. "What was so different, though, was the political involvement, not only from H.H.S. but then the White House, ultimately, that in so many ways hampered what our scientists were able to do," she explained.
McGowan went on to argue that it will "take years to undo" the damage done to the agency under Donald Trump.
It's no secret that Joe Biden has a daunting to-do list. Rescuing the CDC during a pandemic will have to be one of the highest priorities.