Health Letter, October 2020
By Michael Carome, M.D.
If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!
Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.
During the past few months, as the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the U.S. surged toward 7 million and the COVID-19 death toll surpassed the grim milestone of 200,000, President Trump’s political appointees have engaged in an unprecedented and surreal campaign to denigrate and undermine the federal scientists and public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) whose expertise is essential to controlling the pandemic.
A central figure in the recent denigration of CDC experts was Michael Caputo, the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and top spokesperson at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and a former 2016 Trump campaign adviser. In a normal world, the senior HHS spokesperson would promote public health messaging based on the analyses of career scientists at public health agencies like the CDC.
But Caputo, who joined HHS in April 2020 and apparently has no formal scientific or medical training, instead sought to manipulate and suppress scientific information developed by the CDC scientists. For example, on Sept. 11, Politico reported that he and his scientific adviser, Paul Alexander, “demanded the right to review and seek changes to the [CDC’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.”
The reports that Caputo and Alexander — a part-time assistant professor at McMaster University in Canada — sought to censor were to be published in the CDC’s renowned Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR), which for nearly seven decades has been the agency’s primary vehicle for disseminating “timely, reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective, and useful public health information and recommendations” to physicians, nurses, public health practitioners, epidemiologists and researchers, among others, in the U.S. and around the world. One former top health official told The New York Times that the CDC’s MMWR was considered to be the “holiest of holies” in agency literature.
According to Politico, Caputo and his staff complained to CDC Director Robert Redfield that MMWR reports would undermine Trump’s falsely rosy messages about the pandemic. Although CDC officials pushed back against the most significant requested changes, they increasingly capitulated to Caputo and his staff by allowing them “to review the reports and, in a few cases, compromised on the wording.” This political meddling in CDC scientific reports occurred throughout the summer and into September.
According to The New York Times, on Sept. 13, Caputo posted an extraordinarily alarming, unhinged rant on his Facebook page in which he accused federal scientists of engaging in “sedition” in the handling of the pandemic and alleged that the CDC was harboring some secret “resistance unit” that was conspiring to undermine President Trump. He also claimed that “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.”
These appalling political attacks on federal scientists erode public trust in the nation’s leading public health agencies, impair the federal response to the pandemic, and ultimately will cost thousands more Americans their lives.
Caputo undoubtedly was following the lead of Trump, who throughout the pandemic has recklessly ignored and contradicted the science-based data and guidance of federal medical and public health experts across HHS.
On Sept. 16, HHS announced that Caputo was taking a two-month leave of absence from the agency and that Alexander would be leaving permanently. But as long as Trump, Pence, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other Trump sycophants who enabled Caputo remain in charge of the federal response to the pandemic, there is little hope that the ongoing public health crisis will be brought under control anytime soon.