In a statement, HHS spokesman Michael Caputo said the CDC has been “at the forefront of this response from across America to the pandemic from day one” and is represented in the White House task force by both Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield.
“The CDC provides regularly updated guidelines to ensure that both the American people and state and local leaders are armed with the most up-to-date information and have consistently deployed personnel to provide on-site support,” he said.
Still, public health organizations, including the American Public Health Association and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, concluded in recent weeks that they should give an independent push to advance the efforts of the CDC and public health departments, hoping against to cope with the increasing skepticism and politicization of their work, driven in part by Trump and his allies.
So far that included Tuesday’s letter to Azar editorial that praises and attempts to humanize public health officials. More than two dozen top state and local health officials have been stopped, resigned, or retired during the pandemic, in some cases after being exposed to personal threats and libel, or demonstrations outside their homes about public health restrictions.
“We are deeply concerned about the increasing reports of resistance to evidence-based public health reports and threats to public health leaders and agencies,” the groups wrote, warning that such sentiments “affect the health and well-being of undermine the people of America at a critical time when cases of COVID-19 rise. “
After POLITICO reported on the White House deliberations over a revision of the CDC that would blame the slow federal response to the service, the various groups – representing state, provincial and territorial health officials – launched a national media campaign to focus on raising awareness among health workers and to portray them as separate from party politics.
“We believe that we are asking other leaders to act in defense of public health leaders,” said Marcus Plescia, ASTHO’s chief medical officer. “It is not clear who in the administration is currently in favor of CDC.”
These discussions are still in the early stages and each resulting effort can take different forms. Freeman said that a large-scale idea being considered is an awareness-raising project that would be considered “one of the greatest PR campaigns in recent history,” although she acknowledged that the necessary funding needed to be found first.
Others have described a series of attempts to better coordinate and promote public health messages across the country, in an effort to improve measures such as wearing masks and social distance measures, which remain the best options to slow down the spread of the virus to date. .
The need for public health organizations to consider such approaches is unprecedented, according to concerned health experts, reflecting both the absence of the CDC as a central messenger of response and the portrayal of public health issues through a sharp political lens.
As the nation’s largest audience Health Authority, the CDC has historically led federal efforts to reduce threats to public health, such as the H1N1 and Zika viruses, with partial support.
But the agency came under fire early in the coronavirus pandemic over the development of faulty diagnostic tests and was further sidelined when the White House coronavirus task force claimed control of the federal response.
While the CDC has continued to support state and local officials behind the scenes, it has received relatively little attention from the administration or the news media. That made it more difficult for those local health departments to organize a response to the agency’s daily recommendations and obscured the agency’s work in grassroots communities.
“There are certainly problems with CDC’s response,” said John Auerbach, president of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health. “But overall, I think the CDC has reacted strongly and people continue to provide really helpful guidance and materials there that may not be as widely recognized as they could and should be.”
More generally, public health organizations that organized the CDC’s defense expressed fears that the White House’s focus on reopening the economy – and downplaying the coronavirus resurgence – is hampering the nation’s response by fundamental health recommendations to turn into political acts.
Trump has publicly violated the CDC’s recommendation to wear people’s face covering and halted the pandemic resurgence, as the nation records new cases almost daily. Similarly, White House officials have dismissed the suggestion that the government re-focus on limiting the virus, reducing the daily average death toll, and strongly committed to developing a vaccine by the end of the year.
And there is little evidence that the CDC and other senior government health experts will have a freer hand to send an answer that the federal government believes should be primarily managed by states and municipalities.
That made primary public health officials increasingly concerned that, even as the crisis coils and coronavirus deaths exceed 130,000, they are gradually losing the ability to reach and affect a significant proportion of the population.
“It’s really unprecedented,” said Freeman. “And I think the biggest scary thing for me is that we don’t want this to leave a lasting impression on people that they can’t trust public health.”