White House tensions with CDC spill into public view as top Trump adviser criticizes agency response


MAY 17, 2020

Peter Navarro says China underplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis as it imported large quantities of masks from the United States. – Jabin Botsford/WashPost

Tensions between the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spilled out into public view on Sunday as a top adviser to President Trump criticized the public health agency’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The comments by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro are the latest signal of how the Trump administration has sought to sideline the CDC. The agency typically plays the lead role in public health crises, but in recent weeks it’s had its draft guidance for reopening held up by the White House, leaving states and localities to largely fend for themselves.

Speaking on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Navarro sharply criticized the CDC over its production of a flawed coronavirus test kit that contributed to a nationwide delay in testing.

“Early on in this crisis, the CDC — which really had the most trusted brand around the world in this space — really let the country down with the testing,” Navarro said. “Because not only did they keep the testing within the bureaucracy, they had a bad test. And that did set us back.”

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whose agency oversees the CDC, pushed back against Navarro’s criticism in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“I don’t believe the CDC let this country down,” Azar said when pressed repeatedly on Navarro’s comments. “I believe the CDC serves an important public health role. And what was always critical was to get the private sector to the table [on testing].”

With the coronavirus pandemic in the United States now in its third month, some in the White House are increasingly taking aim at the CDC and the leadership of its director, Robert Redfield, as The Washington Post has previously reported.

In addition to the issue of testing, White House officials say they are also frustrated by what they consider the agency’s balky flow of data and information and the leak of an early version of its reopening recommendations, according to three administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal disagreements.

Appearing remotely at a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, Redfield detailed the CDC’s efforts to combat the pandemic, including expert assistance to state health authorities, disease surveillance and testing and contact tracing strategy. But he also sounded an alarm that the nation’s public health resources have been insufficient to meet the challenge that covid-19 has posed.

“We need to rebuild our nation’s public health infrastructure: data and data analytics, public health laboratory resilience and our nation’s public health workforce,” he said.

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pictured Friday after President Trump participated in a vaccine development event in the Rose Garden at the White House. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Navarro on Sunday lashed out not only at the CDC, but also at China, escalating the Trump administration’s attacks on that country for its handling of the virus. In an interview on ABC News’s “This Week,” Navarro said he holds the country’s leaders responsible for the global outbreak.

“The virus was spawned in Wuhan province,” Navarro said. “Patient zero was in November. The Chinese, behind the shield of the World Health Organization, for two months hid the virus from the world, and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed that. They could have kept it in Wuhan. Instead, it became a pandemic.”

Beijing has responded to such attacks by accusing the Trump administration of “shifting blame” in an effort to distract from its own failures amid the pandemic.

Annalise D’Andrade, her wife Kara Danner and daughter McKayla watch Pastor Sarah Scherschligt as they attend mass online from their living room on May 17, in Great Falls, Virginia.

While they were at odds over the CDC, Navarro and Azar were in agreement Sunday as they defended the Trump administration’s push for states to reopen their economies.

Navarro argued that “some of the people in the medical community want to just run and hide until the virus is extinguished,” an approach that he argued, without evidence, would “kill many more people” than the coronavirus would.

He also said loosening restrictions on businesses is not a “question of lives vs. jobs.”

“What President Trump realized early on is that, if you lock people down, you may save lives directly from the China virus, but you indirectly are going to kill a lot more people” through suicide or substance abuse, Navarro said.

Azar declared that it’s safe to reopen the country because half of the counties reporting “haven’t had a single death,” and more than 60 percent of all covid-19 cases are in just 2 percent of the reporting counties.

“That’s why the local leaders need to lead this,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Azar also said he was not overly concerned by images of people congregating at bars and other places without staying six feet apart or wearing masks.

“I think in any individual instance you are going to see people doing things that are irresponsible,” he said, emphasizing, “we’ve got to get this economy open and our people out and about, working and going to school again.”

Trump made only brief remarks Sunday as he returned to the White House from Camp David. In an exchange with reporters, he maintained that “tremendous progress is being made on many fronts, including coming up with a cure for this horrible plague that has beset our country.”

But statistics from some states paint a less-than-rosy picture.

Texas reported its largest single-day jump in coronavirus cases Saturday, with 1,801 newly confirmed cases. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 734 of the new cases were reported in the Amarillo area, where there has been an outbreak tied to the region’s meatpacking facilities.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has already allowed some businesses — including hair salons, restaurants and retail stores — to reopen at reduced capacity, and beginning on Monday, gyms, offices and nonessential manufacturing facilities will be allowed to do so as well, according to the Dallas Morning News.

New York, the state hardest hit by the pandemic, has seen a decline in new cases since April, but officials remain wary of a potential increase as parts of the state begin to reopen. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) on Sunday received a covid-19 swab test on live TV in an effort to convince residents to get tested if they are experiencing symptoms.

“It is so fast and so easy that even a governor can take this test,” Cuomo said shortly before a doctor swabbed his nose during his daily briefing in Albany.

After photos and videos emerged over the weekend of people in New York City crowding the sidewalks outside restaurants and bars, many carrying open containers and not wearing masks, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) scolded those disregarding quarantine measures.

“We’re feeling the pull of the outdoors, we’re feeling the seasons changing, we all want to be out there,” de Blasio said, noting that the sunny weather has only exacerbated pent-up New Yorkers’ “quarantine fatigue” after two months in isolation. “But we all understand we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we have to do things differently.”

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he is moving forward based on the best guidance to control the spread of the virus: social distancing. He also said reopening schools will be predicated on data and science, not just observations on the ground.

“I think some schools will not be [open this fall] and many schools will be,” Newsom (D) told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Seventy-five percent of California’s economy is now open, including manufacturing, warehouses and restaurants, Newsom said. Business owners and individuals are encouraged to wear face coverings and maintain physical distance from others. Opening sports arenas, he said, is not an option at this time.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said that reopening his state’s economy was necessary but also noted that the state was still wrestling with the outbreak and the danger remains. “I’ve said to Ohioans that so much is in every individual’s control. I encourage people to wear masks when they go out in public,” he said on CNN.

DeWine said he was concerned when he saw images of a reopened Ohio bar crowded with people. But he added that the people running the bar got the situation under control.

“Ultimately, it’s going to come to Ohioans doing what Ohioans have done the last two months — keep their distance and wear masks,” he said.

DeWine said that 90 percent of the state’s economy is open but that he wasn’t sure about reopening schools. He said they were closed “not because you [are] specifically worried about the kids,” but to keep students from going home and infecting their parents.

“You have 30 kids go into a classroom, one kid is in there, and he’s got no symptoms, but he’s carrying it — now you got maybe 25 kids . . . going back to their families,” DeWine said. “And it just spreads and multiplies. So, that’s the concern.”

In an interview on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned that “time is of the essence” for Congress and the White House to approve an additional round of coronavirus relief, including funds for additional testing and job protections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sought to expand liability protections for employers that reopen during the pandemic, but Pelosi on Sunday declined to say whether Democrats are open to such a move.

“Time is very important. We have lost time,” Pelosi said, adding: “People are hungry across America. Hunger doesn’t take a pause. People are jobless across America. That doesn’t take a pause.”

Courtesy/Source: Washington Post