White House Officials Pushed CDC to Downplay Risks of Reopening Schools

Top White House officials pushed the CDC to minimize the dangers of COVID-19 for young people and pressured schools to reopen this summer.

Two former CDC officials tell The New York Times that White House officials, like aides in Mike Pence’s office and Dr. Deborah Birx—the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force—were attempting to bypass the CDC to boost data that showed the virus’ spread was slowing down. While the identities of the former CDC officials remained anonymous, they confirmed to CBS News that The Times report was true.

Former Pence adviser Olivia Troye, who worked on the White House coronavirus task force, told The Times that Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, frequently asked her to create more data that showed a drop in cases among young people. Troye ultimately left her post in August and has now become a Trump detractor and outwardly critical of how the administration handled the pandemic.

According to The Times, Birx urged the CDC to promote data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—part of the Department of Health and Human Services—which said that prolonged school closings could impact children’s mental health and asserted that the virus’ spread in families was low. In an email from Birx to CDC Director Robert Redfield, Birx asks him to include the document as “background” in CDC guidance for school reopenings.

A second former CDC official said that Birx spearheaded the message for school reopenings, which centered on the dangers of kids staying at home rather than reentering the classroom. This official said that the White House was “slicing and dicing our data to fit its narrative.”

This official also said that CDC scientists were frightened by the “preamble” to guidance shared on the website, which emphasized the possible negative impact that delayed school openings could have. The CDC had used some of that data for its own guidelines, but it wasn’t the focal point.

Brian Morgenstern, the White House deputy press secretary, told CBS that the president “relies on the advice of all of his top health officials who agree that it is in the public health interest to safely reopen schools, and that the relative risks posed by the virus to young people are outweighed by the risks of keeping children out of school indefinitely.”

A White House official boasted about Birx’s close relationship with Redfield, telling CBS that “the notion that Dr. Birx was ‘pressuring’ Dr. Redfield to do something he didn’t agree with seems preposterous on its face.”

“A conversation or comments exchanged between friends and colleagues is hardly some sort of politically-charged demand,” the official added.

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