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Coronavirus and the Terrifying Muzzling of Public Health Experts

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A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on Feb. 28 in Nutley, New Jersey. Kena Betancur / Getty Images News / Getty Images

By Michael Halpern

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.

Michael Halpern is an expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression, manipulation, and distortion of government science.

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