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July 11, 2020, 12:39 a.m. EDT

In debate over school reopenings, it’s Trump vs. the health experts — again

In his latest beef with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the president is accusing the health agency of ‘asking schools to do very impractical things’ in order to reopen

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By Associated Press

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In May, officials removed some recommendations for reopening religious events hours after posting them, deleting guidance that discouraged choir gatherings and shared communion cups.

“Here we have at this time the 21st century’s biggest public health crisis, and the CDC has been shunted aside,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. They have “been sidelined and their voices — their clear, consistent, transparent voices — have been muffled or even completely silenced.”

While Trump has led the way, he’s not the only one sending messages contrary to those of public health officials. At a briefing this week by the White House coronavirus task force, Pence’s message to those in states like Texas, Florida, California and Arizona where cases are rising, was simple: “We believe the takeaway from this for every American, particularly in those states that are impacted, is: Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Not so, said Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force’s response coordinator. She said those states should instead close bars, end indoor dining and limit gatherings “back down to our phase one recommendation, which was 10 or less.”

Experts warn the U.S. has suffered from a lack of clear, science-based messaging during the pandemic — typically provided by the CDC. But Trump and the White House have kept the agency at arm’s length since the early days, when it botched development of a test kit, delaying tracking efforts.

Trump also grew enraged in late February when Dr. Nancy Messonnier — a CDC official who was then leading the agency’s coronavirus response but has since been sidelined — contradicted statements by other federal officials that the virus was contained.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when,” Messonnier said, sending stocks plunging and infuriating Trump, even though she proved correct.

From the archives (May 11): Public health experts worry that the CDC is being sidelined by the Trump administration

Many outside the White House also fault Redfield, who was appointed two years ago, for failing to adequately assert himself and his agency. Redfield does not have a close personal relationship with the president and has rubbed some at the White House the wrong way.

This week, before his later, tougher comments, Redfield appeared to fold before Trump’s complaints, saying that the CDC guidelines should not “be used as a rationale to keep schools closed.”

“This is the opposite of good public health practice,” said Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington evolutionary biologist who studies emerging infectious diseases. “You put guidelines out there about what’s necessary to keep people safe and then you expect people to follow them — not act disappointed if people follow them.”

The school re-opening controversy is just the latest chapter in a depressing tale, said Jason Schwartz, a government health policy expert at the Yale School of Public Health.

“This reflects a failure on the part of the CDC director to defend his agency, his scientists and the science through the pandemic. And this is what has led to this crisis in the CDC’s public standing, and frankly will take years to recover,” Schwartz said.

Some others expressed more sympathy for Redfield.

Vanderbilt’s Schaffner said that Redfield’s commitment to public health is clear, but said he nonetheless lacks the standing and forcefulness needed to influence the president’s thinking.

“His rhetorical style is nothing like what would be necessary for him to push back. And it’s unclear how much he could push back without being removed,” he said.

Read on (April 2020): Trump’s pandemic response was hindered by missed opportunities, ignored warnings

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