White House pressured CDC on reopening schools, report says

Washington — Top White House officials over the summer pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to downplay the risk of the coronavirus among young people and encourage the reopening of schools, according to a former CDC official who was at the agency at the time.

The New York Times first reported that White House officials, including officials in Vice President Mike Pence’s office and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, were involved in trying to circumvent the CDC to promote data that showed the spread of the virus was slowing. The former CDC official told CBS News that the information in the Times report was accurate.

Olivia Troye, a former member of Pence’s staff, told the Times that she was repeatedly asked by Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, to produce more data showing a decline in cases in young people.

The Times also reported that Birx pushed the CDC to include data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, which said that extended school closures could affect children’s mental health and argued that transmission of the virus among family members was low. The Times obtained an email from Birx to CDC Director Robert Redfield asking him to incorporate the document as “background” in CDC guidance for reopening schools.

President Trump over the summer repeatedly argued that schools should be reopened for in-person learning. At an event in July, he said “we want to get them open quickly, beautifully, in the fall.”

Another former CDC official involved in writing the guidelines told CBS News that Birx was influential in shaping the message surrounding schools reopening, and pushed to focus on the risk factors involved for kids if they stayed home instead of the risks linked to going back to class. This official said that the White House was “slicing and dicing our data to fit its narrative.”

This official said that CDC scientists were most alarmed by the “preamble” to the guidance that was posted on the website, the document that stressed the potential negative impact on children if schools did not reopen quickly. While the CDC had incorporated some of the data about that into their own guidelines, they were against making it the top focus.

Brian Morgenstern, the White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement to CBS News 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 touted Birx’s close relationship with Redfield, telling CBS News 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 said.

Redfield has been at odds with the White House in recent weeks. The president earlier this month contradicted Redfield after the CDC director said that a vaccine would be widely available in the second or third quarter of next year, saying Redfield was “confused” and “made a mistake.” NBC News also reported this week that Redfield has criticized Dr. Scott Atlas, a new member of the coronavirus task force.

“Everything he says is false,” Redfield said during a phone call overheard by NBC News.

Fin Gomez and Kristin Brown contributed to this report.

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