Trump officials muzzled CDC on church advice, emails confirm

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In May 2020, Trump White House officials removed public health advice urging churches to consider virtual church services as the coronavirus spread, bringing a change in messaging sought after by the president’s supporters, according to emails from former senior officials released Friday by a House panel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent its planned public health guidelines for religious communities to the White House on May 21, 2020, requesting permission to release them. The agency had been released a few days earlier reports saying the virus had killed three people and infected dozens at religious events in Arkansas and infected 87 percent of participants in a choir practice in Washington Stateand health experts had warned that places of worship had become hotspots for transmission of the virus.

But Trump officials wrote they were frustrated with “problematic” advice the CDC had already released, such as recommendations that places of worship consider hold virtual or drive-in church servicesaccording to emails released Friday by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“This removes all suggestions of church TV, although personally I would say if I was old and vulnerable (I feel old and vulnerable) drive-thrus would be welcome,” wrote May Davis Mailman, a White House attorney. colleagues on May 21, joining his own rubbed version of CDC advice for her E-mail.

Subsequent guidance issued by the CDC did not include any recommendation on offering virtual or drive-in options for church services, clergy visits, youth group meetings and other traditionally in-person gatherings. Mailman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump administration efforts to change CDC guidelines for religious groups have been previously reported, but newly released emails offer new details about White House efforts to prioritize conservative religious groups that were critical to the base of President Donald Trump. As many religious organizations complied with public health orders to limit mass gatherings in early 2020, quickly converting to virtual services, several white evangelical leaders and others have fought the effort and called on the White House for help, with some churches challenging the Supreme Court. .

The emails show that officials such as Kellyanne Conway, who served as a top adviser to Trump, and Paul Ray, then-administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, also expressed concern. frustration that the CDC was planning to expand its guidance and add new recommendations.

“I have proposed several passages to be deleted”, Ray wrote to his colleagues, saying he thought some of the CDC’s recommendations “raise religious liberty concerns” and proposing that the agency be allowed to publish only “subject to removing offensive passages.” In response, Conway thanked Ray for “holding his ground against this new series of out-of-control missions” and solicited edits from other colleagues. The emails released by the House panel do not specify which passages Ray, Conway and other Trump officials have sought to suppress.

In a statement, Ray defended his efforts to change CDC guidelines.

“Each religious tradition – not the federal government – ​​is best placed to understand the requirements of its own beliefs and therefore to choose, among the many effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus, those that best correspond to its beliefs,” Ray wrote. “The proposed changes to this document have been designed to keep Americans safe while respecting their right to worship as they believe they should.”

Conway did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Behind-the-scenes frustrations over the CDC’s guidance for religious groups also spilled over into White House briefings, as Trump urged states on May 22 to allow places of worship to open immediately, as his advisers continued to pressure CDC advice. The public health agency later withdrew its warnings that singing in church choirs could spread the virus, despite its earlier findings.

CDC officials privately lamented the changes and feared the watered-down guidelines could lead to new infections and possibly deaths, according to emails previously released by the panel.

“I have to admit, as someone who has spoken with churches and pastors about this (and as someone who goes to church), I’m not sure. [I] see a public health reason to remove and replace” the original guidelines, Jay Butler, a senior CDC official, wrote to colleagues on May 23, 2020. “It’s not good public health – I’m very disturbed this Sunday morning that there will be people who will get sick and possibly die because of what we’ve been forced to do,” he said. added it in a follow-up email the next day.

In an interview last year, Butler told the House panel that he stood by his concerns. Butler declined to comment on Friday.

House Democrats have spent months investigating reports that Trump officials interfered with the CDC and other health agencies during the early months of the coronavirus response. The House panel released the new documents ahead of a hearing on Friday in which the head of the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency, testified about whether reported political interference had hampered the efforts of health agencies to respond to the pandemic.

House Democrats also released part of an interview with Robert Redfield, the former CDC director, who told the panel that the Trump administration had refused to approve his agency’s requests to brief on the pandemic for six months, with a few exceptions, after Nancy Messonnier. , who was then a senior CDC official, on February 25, 2020, warned that the spread of the virus in the United States was inevitable. The warning angered Trump, who had delivered a much more optimistic message, and sparked friction with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, who decided to sideline the agency. .

“That’s one of my big disappointments…they didn’t clear our briefings,” Redfield told the panel, arguing that the CDC’s lack of communication undermined public trust in the agency.

Representative James E. Clyburn (DS.C.), the House Majority Whip who chairs the panel, said in a statement that the new documents illustrated a “worrying” pattern.

“As today’s new evidence also makes clear, Trump White House officials worked under the former president to deliberately undermine the recommendations of public health officials and muzzle their ability to communicate. clearly with the American public,” Clyburn said.

House Republicans countered that the panel failed to explore issues of scientific integrity during the Biden administration, pointing out a GOP-led investigation which revealed that CDC officials last year shared draft documents and sought advice from teachers’ unions before making recommendations on reopening schools. A CDC official previously told the panel that the extent of communication between the agency and teachers’ unions was “rare.”

“This is political interference in science, plain and simple,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House Minority Whip, said during Friday’s hearing.

Some former health officials have also alleged that the Biden administration sidelined public health experts, for example by ignoring vaccine experts when developing booster recommendations last year.

Kyle McGowan, who served as the CDC’s chief of staff under Redfield, has faulted Trump White House officials for overstepping agency guidelines and urged the Biden administration to allow the CDC to again run regular briefings. The agency held a briefing on the prevalence of Americans infected with the coronavirus on Tuesday, the first of what the agency hopes will be weekly briefings, according to CDC officials.

“If we want the CDC to communicate the reasoning behind its advice, it needs to be able to speak directly to the press and to the American people,” McGowan said.

On Friday, the House panel also heard testimony from Gene L. Dodaro, who heads the GAO, who last week released a report concluding that health agencies need stronger protections against political interference.

“To maintain public trust and credibility, these agencies must ensure that these decisions are evidence-based and free from political interference,” the GAO report concluded.

Lena H. Sun and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.

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