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Political HHS Appointees Demand Authority to Rewrite CDC Reports

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.Politico recently published an exclusive report, based on its own investigation, Trump officials interfered with CDC reports on Covid-19: The health department’s politically appointed communications aides have demanded the right to review and seek changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly scientific reports charting the progress of the coronavirus pandemic, in what officials characterized as an attempt to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals. In some cases, emails from communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials openly complained that

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Politico recently published an exclusive report, based on its own investigation, Trump officials interfered with CDC reports on Covid-19:

The health department’s politically appointed communications aides have demanded the right to review and seek changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly scientific reports charting the progress of the coronavirus pandemic, in what officials characterized as an attempt to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals.

In some cases, emails from communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials openly complained that the agency’s reports would undermine President Donald Trump’s optimistic messages about the outbreak, according to emails reviewed by POLITICO and three people familiar with the situation.

I’m posting this a couple days after Trump communications aide Michael Caputo spoke about details regarding the CDC and went public on Facebook with allegations that political unrest will follow – including armed rebellion – after November’s elections. Alas, he also urged Trump supporters to prepare (see this WaPo account Top Trump health appointee Michael Caputo warns of armed insurrection after election; there are similar reports to be found at the NYT, NY Mag, and Forbes).

Of course this is being reported as news live and straight from the cray cray zone. But does anyone seriously doubt that the upcoming electoral cycle will be a particularly fraught one? Would you want to warrant and guarantee personally that the losing side will stand down? Does anyone remember what happened in 2016? And it’s a measure of just how seriously political reporting has degraded that this warning is regarded as beyond the pale.

Politico Report

As to that Politico report, the first thing any self-respecting writer should ask herself when faced with the latest manifestation of such textbook pearl clutching, is is it true? And does it make any sense?

Now, one thing I zeroed in on was the doctored (?, sorry, you must grant me that) reports themselves. Because I could see if they were essentially political reports – subject to interpretation – the political appointees might have a point.

Much as their “corrections” might seem to fly in the face of mainstream scientific consensus. But as we should surely have understood by now, there’s no hard and fast division between “scientific” and “political”. And why has that old but catchy Monkees tune, Shades of Gray, popped into my head- from which it will be extremely difficult to banish again.

So, I’m going to pass on the favor:

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports

Back to the reports at issue. The reports we are talking about are the well-respected Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. Now, as it happens, I am familiar with these reports. Which I first saw long before the current pandemic arose. Nearly three decades ago, my husband and I lived in our first post-education apartment – a rather nice third floor walk-up in Brooklyn Heights, smallish, but with a balcony that looked out over shared abutting garden space.

And among the other tenants was Dr. Linda Attoe, a leading NYC AIDS doctor – in the era in which there was no cure or therapy: AIDS was then an automatic death sentence. Until it wasn’t. But it was then and not something you would wish on anyone.

All of us who occupied floors in that small walk-up received common mail delivery, and whoever collected the dropped-off mail sorted it into piles for everyone who lived there.

Linda lived with her then-husband in the basement garden flat, and she took a subscription to the Morbidity and Mortality weekly Report. Now, I’d like to think I have at least the basic writing skills of the typical executive branch political appointee. And I regularly write on complex topics.

But I would never purport to be able to rewrite any edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Nor could I envision any scenario where I might want to.

Yet this is what Trump appointees asked to do, according to Politico account and this Ars Technica account, Political appointees demand ability to rewrite CDC case reports:

Paul Alexander, one of the few involved who has an epidemiology background, complained in another email, “CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school re-opening… Very misleading by CDC and shame on them.” Yet that’s exactly what appears to be happening in many locations, suggesting the CDC has a better grasp on the issue than Alexander does.

The political staff has attempted to block the release of some of the Morbidity and Mortality reports and demanded the ability to review and edit all future reports. (Alexander, apparently unironically, suggested he needed to ensure the reports were “fair and balanced.”) While all of the planned reports were eventually published, Politico indicates that the non-scientific staff are gaining increased oversight of the reports prior to their publication.

Now, I ask, would anyone on their right mind seek to do this?
Don’t these people see that their machinations undercut their legitimate case that much of the media IS biased against them. As well as many (most? some?) members of the permanent civil service.

Another point: from my discussions with past Tump voters – one of whom told me, “I don’t deny that Trump has problems. But knowing that, the Democrats give us Joe Biden. She finds the persistent piling on to Trump to be a turn-off, and one reason she may vote for him again. And that’s why I think the vote may be a lot closer than anyone now predicts – although much will undoubtedly happen before the election.

And please, dear readers, use your critical reading skills. I didn’t just say I want Trump to win re-election. I say he might win. I’ve learned to practice strict neutrality on U.S. political outcomes. I’m agnostic as to declaring which result I might prefer – but I will gladly opine on the likelihood of various outcomes.

That being said, the HHS claims, according to Ars Technica:

Rather than recognizing that facts aren’t supportive of their policies, the administration’s political appointees have apparently decided that the CDC is not presenting the facts because it’s trying to undercut Trump. Politico quotes Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official now at Health and Human Services, as saying, “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.” One of the emails obtained for the story, written by another political appointee, says, “CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration,” and another accused the reports of being used to “hurt the president.”

Are these people so unaware of the U.S. COVID-19 record, compared to the rest of the world? Perhaps.

Trump seems to think that if we all just clap our hands, and engage in happy talk, we can simply chase the pandemic away.

I wish it were so easy!

Well, guess what, we can’t. And the sooner the U.S. turns to following tried and tested pandemic-control measures – and joins other grown-up countries in eschewing magical thinking – the greater our chance of getting this whole nightmare under control..

Or, to paraphrase a partner I used to work with extensively while at Sullivan & Cromwell – who, incidentally, was renowned for not suffering fools gladly – used to say when he had to straighten out some mess made by some hapless associate who failed to read a SEC rule – “these rules are publicly available.”

With respect to COVID-19, there may not be all that many rules to follow, but some do exist, and these are publicly known and available. And one only has to take a cursory glance at the COVID -19 figures for countries that have followed them and compare those numbers to those for the United States, to see just how badly we are faring.

Don’t take it from me, either, look at what no less a figure than Bill Gates said in today’s Stat Bill Gates slams ‘shocking’ U.S. response to Covid-19 pandemic.

It should perhaps not need saying, but this is the only time I can remember quoting Bill Gates with approval. And just because I may not agree with him as to what we should do, I can wholeheartedly agree that U.S. performance thus far has been a disaster – especially so when compared to those countries that have handled the pandemic reasonably well.

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