Coronavirus and the Terrifying Muzzling of Public Health Experts

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | February 28, 2020, 8:22 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Pandemic

The Trump administration is scrambling to reconcile the president’s contradictions of statements made by federal health scientists about the emerging coronavirus crisis. Their solution: muzzle scientists, require that all statements be politically vetted through Vice President Pence, and punish federal employees who draw attention to gross negligence. This is a highly dangerous power grab that undermines both emergency response and public faith in the reliability of information coming out of the government. And it speaks to the incompetence and incoherence of the response to this crisis so far.

It’s hard to keep track of the number of Trump appointees who should know basic facts about the coronavirus but don’t. Then yesterday, we learned that the actual public health experts in government would no longer be allowed to speak publicly about the outbreak without the vice president’s blessing. Via The New York Times:

“Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.”

CDC already has a 65-page manual for communicating complex scientific information to the public in times of crisis. “Clearance” by the White House will not improve this function.

Later yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that government health officials were sent to take in evacuees without proper training or protective gear. An employee who raised concerns has filed a whistleblower complaint after facing retaliation. According to the Post:

“The whistleblower is seeking federal protection because she alleges she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of these workers to HHS officials, including those within the office of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. She was told Feb. 19 that if she does not accept the new position in 15 days, which is March 5, she would be terminated.”

As chronicled by UCS’s Anita Desikan, previous Trump administration actions have already compromised government response. The State Department overruled objections by CDC scientists and allowed 14 people who tested positive for the virus to fly together with non-infected people. Global disease surveillance systems were weakened. Initiatives to better understand viruses in animals were shuttered. And National Security Council global health security experts were pushed out the door.

We already know that this White House prioritizes the president’s ego over giving the public the information it needs. Remember Sharpiegate? The president erroneously claimed that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. The professional civil service staff at the National Weather Service clarified that the state was not in the path of the storm. That’s their job.

Rather than admit a mistake, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney ordered the acting NOAA administrator to repudiate the experts and prevent other scientists from talking about the path of the storm. During the hurricane. Under termination threats, NOAA political appointees buckled, telling professional staff that the even when public safety is concerned, the president is always right.

We know that the president will fire anyone who crosses him, even leaders within the intelligence services, with nary a whimper from his allies in Congress who claim to care about the Constitution. The emperor will be sure that nobody will tell him when he has no clothes.

What will happen now that the White House has a compelling self-interest in downplaying the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in light of the plummeting stock market? Don’t count on Pence, who was overheard complaining that he had “nothing to do.”

There is no substitute for experienced government professional staff who are focused on the public interest. That becomes even more critical in times of emergency. If this censorship and retaliation trend continues, we can expect more gross incompetence in handling the virus’ spread. More people will get needlessly sick and more people will needlessly die.

If the White House has no qualms about misleading the public about weather forecasts, how can we possibly expect them to tell the truth about a major public health crisis? Enough with the political vetting. We need to hear directly from the experts.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , ,

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  • piboson

    Now news reports indicate the White House Idiocracy is classifying COVID-19. This is complete lunacy, if true.
    Treasonous Trump and Prickly Pence are a very serious threat to democracy, and now a very serious threat to public health.


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  • jumpinjehosephat

    If future public safety announcements coming out of these federal agencies are not better-coordinated than those of the past few days, UCS will no doubt continue to heavily criticize any inconsistencies, and particularly blame President Trump, for any potential negative effect on public confidence and public health. Yet, when Vice-President Pence takes the perfectly reasonable step of coordinating those announcements among the several agencies and experts involved, UCS criticizes that response, and blames President Trump anyway. Talk about contradiction and incoherence! If UCS were not heavily politicizing this potentially dire public health crisis, it might give President Trump acknowledgement, if not credit, for learning from and reacting to the inconsistent statements of the past few days, and limiting the potential not only for his own further inconsistent statements by interposing Vice-President Pence to head the ongoing public health effort, but also potential inconsistent statements from the individual agencies and personnel through the imposition of a public statement coordination and clearance order, which UCS terms “censorship and retaliation,” “a highly dangerous power grab,” and a “muzzling” of scientists. If Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, or Bernie Sanders were now in the exact same public health crisis, issuing the exact same coordination and clearance order on the brink of a dangerous viral epidemic, I have little doubt that UCS would be lauding them for their steady leadership in the face of a dire public health crisis to correctly inform and protect the American public. Apparently, the “science” that you concerned people practice in your union is mainly political science.

    • Michael Halpern

      Hey there! Two quick points.

      First, cross-agency coordination regarding how the government is responding to a crisis (such as where to put resources) is entirely reasonable. Political clearance of scientific information is not reasonable. There is a pretty big distinction. Also, threatening to fire people who report safety violations is also not okay.

      Second, I publicly criticized the Obama administration many times. The most relevant example was when the EPA and CDC were stopping scientists from telling the public what they knew about a chemical spill in West Virginia.

      • jumpinjehosephat

        Are you still claiming that Dr. Fauci was “muzzled by President Trump,” after Dr. Fauci just told the world in no uncertain terms that he was not? Quote: “I’ve never been muzzled and I’ve been doing this since Reagan.” Or maybe you are still proof-reading your retraction that you have not published yet?

      • Of course Dr. Fauci said that. He’d like to stay on in his position. Fauci was slated to appear on several of the Sunday talk shows today. In his place was VP Pence. Now, c’mon – who would you rather hear from in a situation where knowledge of science is basic to understanding and communicating what is going on with a viral pandemic? I rest my case.

      • jumpinjehosephat

        Dr. Fauci said,

        “I have never been muzzled ever and I’ve been doing this since the
        administration of Ronald Reagan, I’m not being muzzled by this
        administration… I have not been muzzled at all, that was a real misrepresentation of what happened.”

        You are suggesting with zero proof that Dr. Fauci was repeatedly lying on national television about this to save his government job? And that he let himself be “muzzled” by Mike Pence from telling the public truth about the coronavirus despite his longstanding professional and personal reputation?

        Do you “believe” any abject liar, so long as he is telling you what you want to hear in order to confirm your political bias against President Trump? (Rhetorical question).

  • Tom

    As many of us know, the situation and severity of the Coronavirus is being suppressed and a pandemic is inevitable. The time is now for people to start being prepared to protect themselves and their family. Clean water, food, fuel, surface cleaners, drinking water disinfectants (H2O ResQ) and medical supplies are just a few of the necessary items people should stockplile… Water filters (nanofiber fast flow filters- filter viruses) they are the best to have and are used by NASA, manufactured by Water Pure Technologies. Air Masks, if you can find one.. try to get N99 rated. Dehydrated (long life) food storage.
    Water Tanks, etc… we need to be have a stockpile of the bare necessities at hand.

    • Dan Schulz

      Dude I hope you can eat that crap. I just buy extra of what I always buy. Freezer is plum full. If the power goes out short term I have a gas generator. If it goes out long term, I dry and can it. Your brain will help you survive this. Good luck brother!

  • Arthur Strauss, MD

    As a physician with scientific training, it’s disturbing to both see and listen to the politicization of a potentially dire public health crisis by the federal government. I’d advise residents of states with large populations, like California and New York, to listen to their state officials first for up-to-date and unbiased reporting of this impending community outbreak and for local measures that individuals and families can take to protect themselves.