On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention struck down a previous guidance that recommended against the testing of asymptomatic people for the coronavirus that causes covid-19, even if the person was exposed to the virus. The agency now recommends testing anyone who could have caught the infection from a close contact, symptoms or not, much as it did earlier this year. The reversal follows recent reporting by the New York Times indicating the earlier guidance was pushed through last month by Trump administration officials without input from CDC staff.
The CDC’s new language is to the point. For those who know they’ve come into recent close contact with someone who has a documented infection from the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2—close contact meaning spending at least 15 minutes 6 feet or closer to the person—the CDC now simply states: “You need a test.”
It goes on to recommend that all close contacts of people with a documented infection get tested, noting that “because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, it is important that contacts of individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection be quickly identified and tested.”
The above is an entirely uncontroversial position that’s been held by public health experts since the start of the pandemic—which is why outside scientists and experts were aghast when the CDC seemed to abruptly change tack in late August, with an updated guidance released on its website that stated asymptomatic people did not “necessarily” need testing.
It wasn’t long after these changes were made that those like Tom Frieden, a former head of the CDC, began speculating that the guidance was forced upon the public health agency by higher-ups in the Trump administration. Notably, President Trump has routinely dismissed the need for more testing during the pandemic, even calling for testing to slow down.
Federal officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, were quick to dismiss the idea that the CDC was strong-armed into the decision. However, reporting quickly emerged that CDC officials felt forced to accept the changes. At one point, Anthony Fauci—head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and leading member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force—revealed that final changes to the language were made while he was under anesthesia for a surgery to remove throat polyps.
On Thursday, the NYT reported that the CDC was not only forced to accept the changed guidelines but that the changes were made without going through the CDC’s standard scientific review process. The NYT also reported that scientists at the CDC strenuously objected to the new guidelines but were told by senior staff in an email obtained by the NYT that: “We do not have the ability to make substantial edits.”
The head of the CDC, Robert Redfield, told the NYT in a statement following the article’s publication yesterday that the guidelines were coordinated in conjunction with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and “received appropriate attention, consultation and input from task force experts.”
These latest changes to the CDC’s testing guidance arrived less than a day later.
This snafu is only the latest indication that much of the country’s public health response to covid-19 has been co-opted by politically motivated administration officials.
Just this week, Politico reported that HHS chief Alex Azar intervened with the FDA in late August, revoking the agency’s ability to quality check certain types of tests for covid-19 and other conditions developed by outside labs. And the NYT also broke a story Friday showing emails from two Trump officials, notably Michael Caputo—the chief spokesperson for HHS who has since gone on medical leave—dismissing the CDC’s expertise, trying to prevent officials from communicating publicly, and generally downplaying the pandemic’s dangers.