Former CDC chief says Trump appointees blocked his agency from briefing public on COVID-19

(WASHINGTON) — In closed-door testimony to House investigators released on Friday, Dr. Bob Redfield, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, former President Donald Trump appointees repeatedly blocked his public health experts from briefing the American public.

Redfield described, in detail, efforts by the CDC to speak publicly on what it knew about COVID and how people could stay safe.

“They would not clear our briefings,” Redfield said, according to written excerpts of the interview. “This is one of my great disappointments. That HHS basically took over total clearance of briefings by CDC.”

Further, Redfield said he believed the consequences of CDC’s inability to provide information to the public during that period, impacted the trust of the American public on the agency.

He called his replacement, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, after she was picked for the job, and promised he would never jump on the evening television shows and criticize her.

“I called her when she got nominated. The one thing she wasn’t going to hear from me was public criticism. I got it every night from my predecessors on the nightly news. I said I’m not going to do that to you. That is tough job. I’m here to help. Call me if you can,” Redfield said.

Prior to Redfield’s comments, last week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report detailing accusations from staffers of political interference against the agencies within HHS, including the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

Interviewees reported, through a confidential hotline, that they had witnessed instances of political interference occur, but did not report them for various reasons, including fear of retaliation, a lack of knowledge on how to report the issues, or a belief that their leaders were already aware of the issues.

Some respondents from the CDC and FDA said they felt that the potential political interference they observed, had resulted in the “alteration” or “suppression” of scientific findings. Other interviewees reported that they believed the potential political interference that they had witnessed, may have resulted in the “politically motivated alteration of public health guidance or delayed publication of COVID-19-related scientific findings.”

In one instance, in May 2020, a senior official from the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response claimed that HHS retaliated against him for disclosing “concerns about inappropriate political interference to make chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine available to the public as treatments for COVID-19,” GAO officials wrote in the report.

The report, which stated that the agencies had not reported any formal internal allegations of potential political interference from 2010 through 2021, found that the federal health agencies do not have appropriate procedures in place that “define political interference in scientific decision-making.” Although all four agencies train staff on some scientific-integrity-related topics, the NIH is the only agency that provides guidance on political interference.

According to GAO officials, who concluded their audit through April 2022, HHS concurred with the recommendations to develop procedures and training for reporting these allegations of political interference.

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