Trump officials muzzled CDC over church covid advice, emails show

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In May 2020, Trump White House officials overruled public health advice urging churches to consider virtual church services as the coronavirus spread, bringing a change in messaging sought after by the president’s supporters, according to emails from former senior officials released Friday by a House panel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent its planned public health guidelines for religious communities to the White House on May 21, 2020, requesting permission to release them. The agency had been released a few days earlier reports that the virus had killed three people and infected dozens at church events in Arkansas and infected 87% of choir practice attendees in Washington state, and health experts had warned that places of worship had become hotspots for transmission of the virus.

But Trump officials wrote they were frustrated with “problematic” advice the CDC had already issued, such as recommendations that houses of worship consider holding virtual or drive-in church services, emails show. released Friday by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. A White House lawyer rewrote CDC guidelines to remove “all suggestions of tele-church,” according to an email obtained by the panel. Guidance subsequently issued by the agency did not include any recommendations on the supply virtual or drive-in options for church services, clergy visits, youth group meetings and other traditionally in-person gatherings.

Trump officials also expressed frustration that the CDC’s planned guidelines “appear to raise religious freedom issues” and made a series of direct changes to the recommendations, proposing that the agency be allowed to release them “subject to delete offensive passages”. The emails released by the House panel do not specify which passages Trump officials sought to redact.

Although the Trump administration’s efforts to change the CDC’s guidelines for religious groups have previously been reported, the emails contain new details about White House efforts to address a priority for religious communities that represented key support for President Donald Trump. In early 2020, several church groups fought public health orders to limit mass gatherings and appealed to the White House for help, with some churches taking their legal challenges to the Supreme Court.

Behind-the-scenes frustrations over the CDC’s guidance for religious groups also spilled over into White House briefings, as Trump urged states on May 22 to allow places of worship to open immediately, as his advisers continued to pressure CDC advice. The public health agency later withdrew its warnings that singing in church choirs could spread the virus, despite its earlier findings.

House Democrats have spent months investigating reports that Trump officials interfered with the CDC and other health agencies during the early months of the coronavirus response. The House panel released the new documents ahead of a hearing on Friday in which the head of the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency, will testify about whether reported political interference has hampered efforts by health agencies to respond to the pandemic.

House Democrats also released part of an interview with Robert Redfield, the former CDC director, who told the panel that the Trump administration had refused to approve his agency’s requests to make briefings on the pandemic for six months, with a few exceptions, after Nancy Messonnier. , who was then a senior CDC official, on February 25, 2020, warned that the spread of the virus in the United States was inevitable. The warning angered Trump, who had delivered a much more optimistic message, and sparked friction with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, who decided to sideline the agency. .

“That’s one of my big disappointments…they didn’t clear our briefings,” Redfield told the panel, arguing that the CDC’s lack of communication undermined public trust in the agency.

Representative James E. Clyburn (DS.C.), the House Majority Whip who chairs the panel, said in a statement that the new documents illustrated a “worrying” pattern.

“As today’s new evidence also makes clear, Trump White House officials worked under the former president to deliberately undermine the recommendations of public health officials and muzzle their ability to communicate. clearly with the American public,” Clyburn said.

The House panel this morning is scheduled to hear testimony from Gene L. Dodaro, who heads the GAO, who released a report last week concluding that health agencies need stronger protections against political interference.

“To maintain public trust and credibility, these agencies must ensure that these decisions are evidence-based and free from political interference,” the GAO report concluded.


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