Po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees med­dled in key virus re­ports

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - NATION - By Noah Wei­land, Sh­eryl Gay Stol­berg and Abby Good­nough Noah Wei­land, Sh­eryl Gay Stol­berg and Abby Good­nough are New York Times writ­ers.

WASH­ING­TON — Po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees at the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices have re­peat­edly asked the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion to re­vise, de­lay and even scut­tle weekly re­ports on the coro­n­avirus that they be­lieved were un­flat­ter­ing to Pres­i­dent Trump.

Cur­rent and for­mer se­nior health of­fi­cials with di­rect knowl­edge of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the agencies said Satur­day that med­dling from Wash­ing­ton was turn­ing widely fol­lowed and oth­er­wise apo­lit­i­cal guid­ance on in­fec­tious dis­ease, the Mor­bid­ity and Mor­tal­ity Weekly Re­ports, into a po­lit­i­cal loy­alty test, with ca­reer sci­en­tists framed as ad­ver­saries of the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

They con­firmed an ar­ti­cle in Politico Friday night that the CDC’s pub­lic mor­bid­ity re­ports, which one for­mer top health of­fi­cial de­scribed as the “holi­est of the holy” in agency lit­er­a­ture, have been tar­geted for months by se­nior of­fi­cials in the health de­part­ment’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fice. It is un­clear whether any of the re­ports were sub­stan­tially al­tered, but im­por­tant fed­eral health stud­ies have been de­layed be­cause of the pres­sure.

The re­ports are writ­ten largely for sci­en­tists and pub­lic health ex­perts, up­dat­ing them on trends in all in­fec­tious dis­eases, COVID­19 in­cluded. They are guarded so closely by agency staff mem­bers that po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees only see them just be­fore they are pub­lished.

Michael Ca­puto, a for­mer Trump cam­paign of­fi­cial in­stalled by the White House in April as the top de­part­ment spokesman, said Satur­day that the per­son most in­volved in re­shap­ing the Mor­bid­ity and Mor­tal­ity Weekly Re­ports has been Paul Alexan­der, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of health re­search at McMaster Univer­sity in Canada and an ad­viser Ca­puto hired to help with him on the sci­ence of the pan­demic.

“He digs into th­ese MMWRs and makes his po­si­tion known, and his po­si­tion isn’t pop­u­lar with the ca­reer sci­en­tists some­times,” Ca­puto said. “No­body has been ever or­dered to do any­thing. Some changes have been ac­cepted, most have been re­jected. It’s my un­der­stand­ing that that’s how sci­ence is played.”

The New York Times in­ter­viewed five cur­rent and for­mer fed­eral health of­fi­cials with di­rect knowl­edge of ef­forts to warp the weekly re­ports. They spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

In an email ob­tained by Politico and con­firmed by a per­son with di­rect knowl­edge of them, Alexan­der ac­cused CDC sci­en­tists of try­ing to “hurt the pres­i­dent” with the re­ports, which he re­ferred to as “hit pieces on the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

The po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment “un­der­mines the cred­i­bil­ity of not only the MMWR but of the CDC,” said Dr. Wil­liam Schaffner, an in­fec­tious dis­ease spe­cial­ist at Van­der­bilt Univer­sity.

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