Trump-Era COVID Guidance Wasn’t ‘Primarily’ Written by CDC Staff, Review Finds 

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a White House briefing on the Biden administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in late January.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a White House briefing on the Biden administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in late January. White House via AP

President Biden’s CDC director requested the review as she works to rebuild the agency.

An internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review, done after President Biden was sworn in, showed that agency staff did not “primarily” write some coronavirus guidance with the CDC's name on it. 

The review, dated March 10, was first reported by The Washington Post on Monday and later shared by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC principal deputy director, reviewed the CDC’s coronavirus guidance at the request of Biden’s CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, in order to ensure that the agency’s guidance is “free of politics.” 

“There were a variety of issues identified including guidance that was not primarily authored by CDC staff; reliance on less directive language (e.g., ‘considerations’) than [agency COVID] response leadership felt could be supported by existing evidence; and availability of new data or evolving scientific understanding that necessitated updated recommendations,” Schuchat wrote. “I also found that some recommendations were accompanied by science briefs detailing the evidence-base supporting the guidance, but these supporting science briefs had not yet consistently been produced and/or publicly posted for each major area of guidance.”

Prior to her review (completed earlier this year), “two documents developed or finalized outside of the agency” were already removed from the agency’s website, she wrote. One was the school reopening guidance, issued on July 23, 2020 after President Trump tweeted on July 8, 2020 he disagreed with the initial version, as the recommendations would have been “very tough [and] expensive” to follow. 

The other was the controversial testing guidance (issued on August 24, 2020), which said those who came in close contact with someone who had coronavirus but were asymptomatic did not have to get tested. 

The reopening guidance issued on April 16, 2020 was also not primarily written by the agency and removed on February 7, 2021 (this was during the course of the review), Schuchat noted. President Trump championed these guidelines as he sought to reopen businesses and spur the economy, despite the grim reality of the pandemic at the time. 

“This review built upon work that started in the fall of 2020, when CDC’s COVID-19 response [team] also began extensively assessing the agency’s COVID-19 guidance to identify potential updates that needed to be made to account for the latest scientific evidence,” a CDC spokesperson told Government Executive.

Schuchat did not say who specifically wrote which guidance; she did not mention President Trump or the Trump administration, or mention specific Trump appointee names. Schuchat only mentioned “politics” once. However, there have been many other reports about political influence in the Trump administration's pandemic response (especially as the presidential election got closer), particularly at the CDC, and the report falls in line with them.

“These findings provide further evidence of the sweeping pattern of political interference in the nation’s pandemic response that the Select Subcommittee’s investigations have uncovered,” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., subcommittee chairman, said in a statement. “The Trump administration put politics over people’s lives. I am committed to investigating this conduct fully and taking all steps necessary to ensure that it never happens again.”

The subcommittee previously reported that Trump administration officials “weakened” CDC guidance in August order to downplay the spread of the virus, attempted to block or alter at least 13 CDC reports and bullied career officials. The panel also noted similar occurrences at other agencies within the Health and Human Services Department, including the Food and Drug Administration.  

Schuchat gave eight recommendations at the end of the report, which include making the scientific rationales for major changes in guidance documents easily accessible, holding briefings for the media and stakeholders upon issuing major guidance, being transparent when providing evidence that is “not sufficiently strong or where there are real tradeoffs,” and reviewing major guidance at least every three months. 

“I am focused on moving CDC forward with science, transparency and clarity leading the way. It is imperative for the American people to trust CDC,” Walensky said in a statement, when asked for comment on the report. “This agency and its critical health information cannot be vulnerable to undue influence, and this report helps outline our path to rebuilding confidence and ensuring the information that CDC shares with the American people is based on sound science that will keep us, our loved ones, and our communities healthy and safe.”