We learned that the White House has held dozens of meetings on coronavirus that were considered “classified,” meaning that federal health officials, including experts, were unable to enter the room. Without experts in the room, how can we expect our government to follow the best available science on this rapidly developing issue and enact science-based policies that protect our health and safety during this pandemic?
When it comes to the novel coronavirus, it is imperative that the US government report robust scientific information about where the disease is spreading, how to control the spread of the disease, and who is most at risk of serious illness. People’s lives are literally on the line.
And yet when dealing with the impact of COVID-19 – a disease that will likely reach thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of people in the US alone – government officials are sometimes choosing to suppress or distort health data for political purposes. Let’s take a look at the ways that the Trump administration is trying to hoodwink the public, by trying to convince us that the escalating number of cases of COVID-19 is simply not occurring.
— Union of Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) March 19, 2020
These are not the numbers you are looking for
As I reported before, the Trump administration has hollowed out the federal government to such an extent that we are severely lacking in capable scientific leadership, resources, and expertise to guide us through the crisis posed by this novel coronavirus outbreak. And as my colleague Michael Halpern has pointed out, the administration is also engaging in a strategy that restricts the ability of scientists from directly communicating important information to the public on COVID-19.
But what perhaps is more startling is that the Trump administration may be also trying to keep us in the dark about the true extent of the spread of this serious illness. When visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in early March, President Trump openly admitted that this is exactly what he wants. President Trump, when discussing the passengers aboard the Grand Princess – the cruise ship previously stationed off of San Francisco for a mandatory quarantine – said that “I would rather have them stay on, personally,” adding that it was “because I like the numbers being where they are… I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Think about that for a moment. In the midst of a pandemic, the president of the United States is openly telling us that the false appearance of low numbers is more important to him than the reporting of accurate case data to the public. If this what the president is telling the public, then it is more than likely that federal scientists and health professionals are facing immense pressure from highest levels of our government to suppress scientific data that shows that the outbreak is escalating rapidly.
Data on the numbers infected are missing
It is well known that the CDC badly bungled the rollout of the coronavirus test kits and there continues to be severe shortages of test kits around the country. The lack of available test kits leaves us unable to accurately gauge how extensive the spread of COVID-19 in the US truly is. The Trump administration’s botched decisionmaking structure appeared to play a major part in worsening the test kit shortage crisis. For instance, while the kinks in the US’ version of the test were being worked out, political officials failed to consider using the World Health Organization’s (WHO) kits to test people for the novel coronavirus.
Worse yet, some health data has been concealed from the public. The CDC’s website on the COVID-19 outbreak previously reported epidemiological data which showed the number of people who were tested for the novel coronavirus and the number of deaths attributed to the disease. The data was once featured prominently in a continuously updated table, as can be seen in an archived version from March 1.
Additionally, the CDC’s running tally of reported cases is now falling far behind the number of US cases tracked by Johns Hopkins and even lags behind the European Union’s estimate of US cases. Official data is now so lacking on the number of people tested in the US that The Atlantic carried out its own epidemiological analysis to find out the numbers. They found that over 4,000 people had been tested in the US, which utterly pales to countries like the UK where over 24,000 people and South Korea where over 100,000 people have been tested.
Attempts to censor the scientists
The White House continues to try and impede scientists from reporting the best available scientific information on COVID-19 to the public. According to AP News, White House officials ordered that a CDC plan on controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus remove certain science-based information. In the plan, experts from the CDC had recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans not to fly on commercial airlines because of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus; however, the White House required that this portion be removed.
Thankfully, this hasn’t stopped prominent health officials from providing this information to the public. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, was able to get this message out to the public via a press conference on March 9. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, provided similar advice on news talk shows over the weekend.
This is why scientific data matters
The startlingly fast spread of the novel coronavirus across the world is highlighting the importance of gathering and reporting accurate scientific data to the public. However, we’ve documented a number of times where the Trump administration has previously shuttered the collection of data, on topics as varied as pay discrimination practices, a student loan forgiveness program, and air pollution in the aftermath of a hurricane. In a previous report we found that the hardest hit by these anti-science actions were people from underserved communities. Failing to accurately collect or report data will inevitably complicate the ability of the federal government to carry out evidence-based decisionmaking during the coronavirus outbreak.
If you feel strongly that scientists and health professionals should be able to present data and scientific information to the public about this escalating public health crisis without censorship from the White House, please consider joining your fellow scientists and signing this letter. Because if scientists and health professionals are not able to be fully transparent to the public about the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, how are we going to obtain the best available scientific information to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the threat of COVID-19?
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