Startling documents released Monday point to heavy-handed interference by top Trump administration officials last summer to downplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, through suppressed testing results and altered guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening businesses and schools.
The documents are the result of a House Oversight investigation launched in September into reports of efforts by Trump political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services to interfere with guidance issued by CDC in order to keep businesses open, even though evidence proved it could cost American lives.
The select subcommittee in charge of the investigation said Monday that it found that HHS officials sought to suppress accurate scientific information they felt could be “use[d] against the president,” according to the documents. They also found that Trump appointees with limited scientific experience “attempted to alter or block at least 13 CDC reports related to the virus.”
Those altered reports are said to have produced a false sense of security pushed by the CDC that allowed businesses and some schools to open, made people feel secure in public places, and downplayed the importance of wearing a mask.
According to one of the documents released, the Trump administration changed the guidance for the “explicit purpose of reducing testing and allowing the virus to spread while quickly reopening the economy.”
On Sept. 11, 2020, for example, top Trump HHS adviser Paul Alexander emailed senior COVID Task Force adviser Scott Atlas about a forthcoming CDC report on deaths in young people, which Alexander claimed that, despite being true, was “very duplicitous to damage the administration.” He tried to engage Atlas to help “craft an op-ed .. disputing the reporting for on face value, it is meant to mislead,” according to the documents.
In the email, which is part of the cache of documents released Monday, Alexander warned, “The timing of this is meant to interfere with school re-opening and we need to get something out fast to preempt this in the next day or so and I can work with you on it.”
Alexander became the focus of public outrage in December when internal emails emerged showing he was pushing top Trump health officials to adopt a “herd immunity” strategy for the U.S. “There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD,” his letter to Trump HHS public-affairs adviser Michael Caputo read. “Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk…. so we use them to develop herd… we want them infected….”
Alexander left HHS in mid-September after reports emerged about his attempts to alter the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.
The new internal emails referred to Monday, according to Oversight Chairman Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), show how the Trump administration took steps to end testing of “asymptomatic infections in low-risk people” because these tests were causing infected people to quarantine, which HHS’ Alexander complained was “preventing the workforce from working” and would not allow schools and colleges to “optimally reopen.”
The documents show how Alexander pressured Food and Drug Administration officials to go so far as to quickly approve emergency use of convalescent plasma as treatment, even advising them to disregard concerns from National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins and Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci, instead accusing the NIH of “stepping out of their lane.”
Another email from the Select Subcommittee last summer to Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary Alex Azar concerning Trump’s instruction to “slow the testing down” went unanswered. A short time later, the CDC issued guidance in direct contradiction to scientific evidence advising against testing asymptomatic people who had been exposed to COVID-19 positive people.
At the time, the subcommittee says it “raised serious concerns about the change,” noting that it was “reportedly pursuant to instructions ‘coming from the top down.’”
Still, Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS Brett Giroir “flatly denied any political involvement in the decision,” and claimed that “the new guidelines are a CDC action.”