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CDC’s politicization ‘extremely dangerous’ for Americans, says its former head

The CDC is traditionally seen as the leading government agency to monitor public health and communicate key information to the public. But according to four former heads of the agency, the Trump administration has been interfering in the CDC's central role during this pandemic. Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director, joins William Brangham to discuss what he argues is a dangerous shift.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Traditionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, is seen as the leading government agency to monitor public health during an epidemic and to convey key information to the larger public.

    Historically, the CDC is not very political. But, in many ways, its role has been very different during this pandemic.

    As William Brangham tells us now, four former directors of the agency say, the CDC's voice has been muted for political reasons.

  • William Brangham:

    Amna, these four former directors these are men who have served in Republican and Democratic administrations just issued an editorial in The Washington Post.

    And they argued that the agency's voice and crucial guidance has been sidelined.

    They wrote — quote — "We're seeing the terrible effect of undermining the CDC play out in our population. Willful disregard for public health guidelines is, unsurprisingly, leading to a sharp rise in infections and deaths."

    One of those former directors is joining me now. Dr. Thomas Besser — Richard Besser is the CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which we should say is a funder of the "NewsHour."

    Dr. Besser, thank you very much for being here.

    The headline of your editorial said: "We ran the CDC. No president ever politicized its science the way Trump has."

    How has he done so?

  • Richard Besser:

    Well you know, what we're seeing, William, is a clash of messages.

    We hear every public health leader in the nation talking about how serious this pandemic is, talking about the steps we need to take as individuals and as a nation to ensure that we minimize the damage to people's lives.

    And then we hear politicians, starting at the White House, talk about how there's nothing to worry about, how public health is overplaying this. And the injection of politics into a public health response is extremely dangerous for the nation.

    CDC is the nation's public health agency. And their guidance informs what states do, what local public health does. By injecting politics into it and undermining the trust that we need to have in that guidance, it puts people's lives at risk.

  • William Brangham:

    And what are some of the real-world effects of that politicizing of the science?

  • Richard Besser:

    Well, a number of things.

    The biggest challenge I'm seeing for CDC is that they're not having daily press conferences. They're not able to talk to the public through the media about what they're doing and what they're learning.

    So, months ago, CDC talked about masks and the importance of health care workers wearing masks, but talked about the general public not needing to wear masks. But there's been a lot of learning that's gone on in every public health response. I ran emergency response at CDC for four years.

    And during every response, what you don't know early on far outweighs what you do know. And you use science to drive the direction of your response.

    So, as CDC learned more, as we learned more from other nations and what was successful, CDC changed their guidance. They recommend that everyone in America wear a mask. And the reason is because a lot of people can transmit this infection before they even know they're sick. So, by wearing a mask, you can cut down on that.

    Well, the CDC had no opportunity to make that case to the public. So, it looked like a total flip-flop. Without bringing the public along, there's no way to build the trust that is absolutely essential during a response.

  • William Brangham:

    As I quoted, you write that the willful disregard of scientific expertise is leading to increasing cases and deaths.

    Do you really believe that this interference has cost American lives, that — people who would have survived had this interference not occurred?

  • Richard Besser:

    I do. I do.

    And I also think that that's part of the reason we're seeing such disparate impact on black Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, so many of whom are essential workers.

    Well, if you're an essential worker, and the people you're having contact with aren't wearing masks because they don't believe that there's any value to it, you're putting those essential workers at risk.

    And if — those essential workers, maybe their health is fine, and they're going to do well with this infection. But higher proportions of black Americans, Latino Americans live in multigenerational households. So they're coming home, and maybe they will give this infection to somebody who won't handle it so well. That costs lives.

    The fact that we're seeing so many young people around the nation going back to their social lives, feeling like there's nothing to worry about here, that is a total undercut of what public health science is saying to do.

    And we need our public health scientists and our political leaders to be on the same page. And it needs to be the page of science.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, as you well know from your time running the agency, the CDC has to walk this very fine line. It has to be close enough to an administration so that their advice is taken, but it also has to be separate enough so that the public sees them as a neutral arbiter of public health information.

    Do you think, given how grave you're describing this circumstance, that the CDC director, Robert Redfield, should have stepped forward more forcefully and said, no, I don't think we're on the right path, we need to do differently?

  • Richard Besser:

    Well, I think every leader, every CDC director has to — has to know what their line in the sand is, and recognize that if they're — if they're forced to step over that, that they're going to take an action.

    It is absolutely essential that the public trusts the information coming from the CDC, that it's the best evidence. Whenever CDC puts through — puts a guidance forward, it goes through clearance. It's shared with other agencies. It's shared with the White House.

    That's where you have science and policy interacting, so that what goes forward can be going forward with a unified front. But, after guidance comes out, it's been unprecedented to see political leaders undercutting the guidance, telling people they don't need to follow it, that it's — that it's overdone, that it's too expensive.

    The idea that we can open our schools this fall if we have not — if we don't have this under control and if we're not providing schools with what they need to — so that our children are safe and staff are safe and teachers are safe, this is something that we can do as a nation, but it has to be driven by that road map that public health is laying out so clearly.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, as you know, the CDC has had a few missteps. Their initial viral test malfunctioned. They seemed for a period of time to be double-counting both viral tests and antibody tests.

    Do you think that some of those missteps might have added to the sort of ammunition that is being used to shoot at them now?

  • Richard Besser:

    Well, it's definitely ammunition.

    But I worked at CDC for 13 years and led emergency response for four. There was never a response effort that we had where we didn't make mistakes. But we had the opportunity every day to talk to the public and say, here's something we tried. We thought this was the right way to go. Here's — it didn't work. Here's what we learned from that.

    The CDC doesn't have that opportunity here. So, there's so much conversation about old mistakes that CDC made.

    If CDC were out front, and were talking to the press every day — one of the things the press does, it asks the tough questions and makes sure that CDC doesn't have blind spots around things they should be paying attention to. They're not getting that.

    And so not only are they not able to share and build trust. Their response is not as good because they're not interacting directly.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Richard Besser, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the CDC, thank you very, very much for your time.

  • Richard Besser:

    Thank you, William.

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