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It's Been A Tense Week For Politics And Pandemic Science


There have been numerous reports recently of politics interfering with pandemic science. The president contradicts the head of the CDC on science, Trump officials rewrite CDC guidance to match the president's political messages, and then at the Department of Health and Human Services, a top Trump official is out. Here to talk about the week in health politics is NPR's Pien Huang. Pien, thanks so much for being with us.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: How did all of this play out this week?

HUANG: Well, Scott, it has been a week in the Trump administration against its own government scientists. At a Senate subcommittee hearing this week, Robert Redfield, the head of CDC, held up a surgical mask and told the public that wearing masks is the best defense against the virus.


ROBERT REDFIELD: I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take the COVID vaccine.

SIMON: And, Pien, what did the doctor mean by that?

HUANG: Well, Dr. Redfield's reasoning was that the vaccine might not be 100% effective in everyone, but that message did not sit well with the president, who doesn't like wearing masks and has been holding rallies where many supporters don't wear them. So later in the day, the president told reporters that Redfield was mistaken, that he gave out incorrect information and that Redfield's timeline for vaccine distribution, which had it being in widespread use in the fall or winter of 2021, was off. On Friday, Trump further claimed that every American will have a vaccine for the virus by April 2021.

SIMON: Now, that's a pretty high-level public rebuke of the CDC, isn't it?

HUANG: Yeah, exactly. And it was just one of several examples that have surfaced recently of the administration contradicting public health advice meant to stop the pandemic. You might remember last month, the CDC posted controversial testing guidelines, saying that people who came in close contact with someone who had the virus didn't necessarily need to get tested. And that contradicted the known scientific fact that people without symptoms can spread the virus. Now, the CDC has reversed the testing guidance. They posted a clarification document on Friday saying that, actually, anyone who's come in contact with a COVID case should get tested, which now aligns with what public health experts have been saying for months now. But the back and forth is giving the public whiplash. Here's Tom Inglesby. He used to serve as an adviser to CDC, and he now directs the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins.

TOM INGLESBY: It is creating confusion in terms of public messaging, and it is really a risk for eroding confidence in CDC.

SIMON: And, Pien, there are more examples of this, aren't there?

HUANG: Yeah. We also learned from some emails that were leaked to Politico and later confirmed by NPR that HHS officials were actively trying to edit and delay weekly science reports from CDC. In one email, they complained that CDC's reports on the risks of coronavirus in kids were, quote, "hit pieces on the administration" that could botch plans for school re-openings.

SIMON: And you have reported that these revelations actually led to some changes in the administration this week.

HUANG: Yeah. So Michael Caputo, who has been the top spokesperson at HHS for five months, is taking a leave of absence. He's a Trump loyalist who's worked on the president's 2016 election campaign. And in his time in the job, he's clamped down on press access to government scientists. He's tried to reshape science messages to be more flattering to the president. And last Sunday on Facebook Live, he streamed a video where he falsely accused government scientists of sedition and of engaging in a deep state conspiracy to keep the pandemic going to hurt the president's chances of reelection. There is no evidence for this conspiracy theory, and Caputo took a two-month medical leave of absence this week.

SIMON: And then we saw the CDC take this action on Friday.

HUANG: Yeah. Public health experts we talked to on Friday said that they were definitely glad to see the guidance on testing reversed, and they hope that it's a signal that at least some of the political pressure has been lifted from CDC. Here's Tom Inglesby from Johns Hopkins again.

INGLESBY: People need to have confidence restored in our scientific process and our federal agencies.

HUANG: It could be that these changes could help restore credibility in the agency and on public health as a whole.

SIMON: NPR's Pien Huang, thanks very much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.