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CDC was pushed to play down the risks of Covid-19 in reopening schools, former Pence staffer says

A report from the New York Times details how top White House officials pressured the CDC over the summer to downplay the risk of sending kids back to school amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Posted: Sep 29, 2020 6:28 AM


The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was pushed to play down the risks of the coronavirus pandemic in reopening schools for in-person classes, Olivia Troye, a former top adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, confirmed to CNN Monday.

She called a New York Times story about the pressure campaign accurate.

Situation was a "nightmare"

Troye, who worked as Pence's lead staffer with the White House Coronavirus Task Force for months before leaving the Trump administration last month, said the situation was a "nightmare."

"Unfortunately, this was an effort, you know, at times where I would get blindsided, where there would be junior staffers being tasked to find different data for charts to show that the virus wasn't as bad for certain populations, ages or demographics," Troye, Pence's former homeland security adviser, told CNN's Chris Cuomo Monday.

However, recent studies, including one from South Korea last month, have shown that children can spread the coronavirus just like adults.

Troye confirmed an incident in June in which she and those junior staffers, pushed by Pence's chief of staff Marc Short, tried to circumvent the CDC in finding data on Covid-19 that would better support President Donald Trump's stance that Covid-19 poses little danger to children and that schools should reopen.

"I think it put these task force members and doctors in a very challenging position," Troye said in describing "what was going on behind the scenes."

"I think you've seen from the beginning the President's narrative has been 'everything's fine. Everything's OK. Time to get back to normal. Let's get the economy going again.'"

Trump told the governors, "'you need to open the schools. You need to try to make it seem like everything's OK when in reality it's not.' I think it's been because his response has been so broken along the way, it was to tell anything but the truth," Troye said.

The dean of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a vaccine expert, Dr. Peter Hotez, called it a "deliberate disinformation campaign."

"This is actually one component of a pretty impressive in a, in a nefarious way, a disinformation campaign and anti-science disinformation campaign put out by the White House," Hotez said.

More than 587,000 children in the United States have tested positive for Covid-19 since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, with a 15% increase in cases in children between September 3 and September 17.

Redfield is in a difficult position

Troye said she believed Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, had it especially hard in trying to balance politics and what scientists were discovering about the coronavirus pandemic.

"I've seen Dr. Redfield trying to figure out how he's going to navigate this political landscape while representing the true evidence of what the scientists and the experts back at CDC and all the doctors were telling him."

Trump has publicly contradicted Redfield on several occasions, including just over a week ago after Redfield testified at a Senate hearing about a possible Covid-19 vaccine timeline. The President said Redfield "made a mistake" and was "confused" when he said a vaccine wouldn't be available until next summer.

Troye said she avoided criticizing members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force because she saw the struggle over the summer between trying to balance Trump's agenda of reopening the economy and schools with communicating the deadly risks of the pandemic.

"I think it put these task force members and doctors in a very challenging position. I saw them struggle first-hand on a daily basis," she said.

Health experts have also worried about what many see as the politicization of the CDC under the Trump administration, pointing out several head-scratching changes on its website in recent weeks.

The CDC suddenly changed its guidance on testing asymptomatic coronavirus patients, saying they didn't need to be tested, before reversing the guidance a week later.

The agency also posted guidance about airborne transmission of the coronavirus just over a week ago, before suddenly removing it a few days later, saying it was mistakenly posted.

US Health and Human Services communications officials had recently pushed to change the language in weekly science reports released by the CDC so as not to undermine Trump's political message, a federal health official told CNN several weeks ago. Redfield later responded that "at no time has the scientific integrity" of these reports been compromised.

Troye has spoken out several times against the President and the coronavirus pandemic response since resigning her position, although Pence's office said she was fired.

But she declined to say whether she spoke to Pence about the problems she saw. Cuomo asked her if Pence was also asked to keep quiet about the risks to children if schools were opened too soon.

"Everyone has a boss and unfortunately for Vice President Pence, his boss is Donald Trump," she said.

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