The change drew outrage from public health experts, and even former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden criticized the revision, calling it “probably indefensible.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was pressured by the top ranks of the Trump administration to revise its coronavirus testing guidance to exclude people who are not experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, even if they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus, CNN and The New York Times reported Wednesday.
“It’s coming from the top down,” one official told CNN of the new directive. Another official told the Times that the guidelines were imposed on the agency.
Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir told CNN that the guidance “has been updated to reflect current evidence and best public health practices,” but provided no specifics about what that evidence was or why the nation would want to reduce testing for a virus that has killed nearly 180,000 Americans.
The reversal comes just one month after Giroir told CNBC that the U.S. needs to be able to test everyone, even people who do not feel sick. “We know that most of the spread are from asymptomatic people, particularly young adults, so you have to cast a wide net and I think we’re able to do that,” he said.
CDC Director Robert Redfield also said in July that Americans did not need to be experiencing symptoms to get tested. The agency also updated its guidelines last month to specifically recommend that people without symptoms get tested if they had been in contact with someone who had COVID-19.
“‘This is potentially dangerous,” Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease physician, told the New York Times. Restricting testing to patients with symptoms means “you’re not looking for a lot of people who are potential spreaders of disease,” she added. “I feel like this is going to make things worse.’”
Former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden also criticized the change, writing that it was “probably indefensible,” in a tweet.
This would not be the first time the Trump administration has publicly made an effort to reduce the nation’s testing capacity. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said the U.S. should do less testing and even admitted in June that he ordered testing for COVID-19 to be slowed down because he did not want to identify more cases.
The abrupt change adds to fears that Trump is co-opting the work of federal health agencies and using them to advance his agenda, at the expense of public health. The Food and Drug Administration last weekend announced an “emergency use” approval of blood plasma to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients. During a press conference announcing the approval, Trump, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn cited a faulty statistic that the plasma treatment had reduced deaths by 35%.
Experts accused the FDA of grossly misrepresenting data and worried the agency was being politicized by Trump, which could jeopardize trust in a future vaccine.
“For the first time ever, I feel like official people in communications and people at the F.D.A. grossly misrepresented data about a therapy,” Dr. Walid Gellad, who leads the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told the New York Times. “That’s a problem if they’re starting to exaggerate data.”
Now, public health experts and healthcare advocates fear Trump is at it again.
“Let’s be clear: for the second time in one week, Donald Trump has been caught overriding the experts and strong-arming independent agencies that Americans depend on during a time of crisis to fit his political agenda,” Protect Our Care’s Zac Petkanas said in a statement. “The CDC’s recommendation to do fewer tests, after pressure from high ranking officials, is a perfect example of how Trump’s abuse of power to help himself politically hurts the American people.”
Giroir denied that politics were involved in the CDC’s reversal, telling the New York Times: “There was no weight on the scales by the president or the vice president or Secretary Azar … This was a product produced by the scientific and medical people that was discussed extensively at the task force.”
Experts remain unconvinced and continue to sound the alarm.
“This is 100% completely absolutely awful. If the CDC’s recommendations can be changed for political reasons, then we cannot rely on them to keep us safe,” Eleanor Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University wrote on Twitter. “And if we [sic] cant rely on the CDC, then who do we have left???”