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What has Team Trump done to the CDC?

The CDC has served as an international gold standard for decades. But in 2020, its statements suddenly lead to "yes, but" questions which lack good answers
Image: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta
A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Sept. 30, 2014.TAMI CHAPPELL / Reuters

Even those who've come to expect the Trump administration to make strange decisions about the pandemic were taken aback last month when the CDC announced strange new coronavirus testing guidelines. The new policy told healthy Americans they "do not necessarily need a test," even if they've been exposed to COVID-19, directly contradicting earlier guidance.

The New York Times reported overnight on the developments behind the fiasco.

A heavily criticized recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month about who should be tested for the coronavirus was not written by C.D.C. scientists and was posted to the agency’s website despite their serious objections, according to several people familiar with the matter as well as internal documents obtained by The New York Times.

To be sure, administration officials said the new guidance was a CDC product. That wasn't true. As the Times' report added, it was the Department of Health and Human Services that rewrote the guidance and "dropped" it into the CDC website -- without regard for the science, without regard for the CDC's objections, and without regard for the CDC's strict review process.

That's no small development, given the CDC's importance, especially during a pandemic. Team Trump seemed to realize that it lacked the necessary credibility to tell the public what to do, so it simply borrowed the CDC's credibility, using the agency's stature to push a politicized and unscientific message that was more in line with the president's wishes to "slow" coronavirus testing.

What's more, this incident, while jarring, isn't isolated. In May, the CDC crafted detailed guidelines, created by the nation's top disease investigators, on how best to responsibly reopen during the coronavirus pandemic -- and then political players intervened.

In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to offer some guidance to parents and educators about how best to safely open schools during a pandemic -- and then Trump rejected them.

In August, a Republican operative placed in a key HHS leadership role took steps to exert political control over the CDC's coronavirus reports that Team Trump found politically inconvenient.

The damage is both severe and consequential. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have served as an international gold standard for decades. But in 2020, its statements suddenly lead to "yes, but" questions for which there are no good answers.

Yes, the CDC has issues directives, but do they reflect scientists' judgments or the White House's? Yes, the CDC has published reports, but have they been subjected to political interference?

I don't know when Donald Trump will leave office, but I do know it's going to take some time to repair the damage done over his term.