The Trump administration reversed itself on a key effort to politicize the response to COVID-19, reversing a scientifically unfounded recommendation that asymptomatic people in contact with those infected with the virus not get tested.
The Centers for Disease Control made the change on its website without fanfare after the New York Times reported Thursday evening that political officials at the Department of Health and Human Services had made the change against the express wishes of CDC scientists.
Virtually no other agency or organization took the Trump administration’s advice that people exposed to COVID-19 should not get tested if they’re not presenting symptoms. Evidence that the virus can transmit asymptomatically has been around for months, provoking disgust in the scientific and public health community at the agency’s guidance, which seemed to be directed towards reducing the number of tests overall.
From the outset, Trump administration officials pushed back on the idea that the guidance had been issued for political reasons or with the intent of reducing the number of tests – a goal that President Trump has repeatedly pushed for.
“Conceptually, we don’t believe the number of tests should go down. Conceptually, we believe the number of tests will go up,” said HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir in a press call last month.
Giroir added at the time that the guidance change had been approved by the CDC.
“Everyone signed off on it before it got to a place where the political leadership would have even seen it,” Giroir added.
Those explanations immediately unraveled, however, in part due to Giroir telling journalists that the change had undergone approval from Dr. Tony Fauci and others at a late August meeting. On the day the meeting was held, Dr. Fauci was in surgery to remove a polyp on his vocal cords.
Since then, the guidance change has contributed to a sinking but overwhelming feeling in the scientific and public health communities that Trump administration officials have contorted the CDC, the nation’s premier public health agency, into an arm of his re-election campaign.
Friday’s guidance change itself states what science has long understood: “Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission,” those who have been in close contact with an infected person should be tested for COVID-19.
Estimates vary on what percentage of COVID cases occur asymptomatically, though estimates range to as many as half. One study of a quarantined town in northern Italy found that more than 40 percent of COVID-19 infections in the town showed no symptoms.
But the change came after the New York Times reported widespread discontent at the CDC with the guidance. One official told the paper that the “policy does not reflect what many people at the CDC feel should be the policy.”
Officials told the paper that the guidance had been posted to the CDC’s website without approval by agency scientists.
The efforts to manipulate the country’s fight against COVID into a re-election prop extend beyond the faulty testing guidance. Michael Caputo and an aide reportedly spent much of the past five months terrorizing CDC staff out of saying anything remotely critical or contradictory of President Trump, for example.