The new information, including statements from former White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, confirms prior reporting and offers additional detail on how the pandemic response unfolded at the highest levels of government.
“Our intention was certainly to get the public’s attention about the likelihood … that it was going to spread and that we thought that there was a high risk that it would be disruptive,” Messonnier told the panel in an Oct. 8 interview. But her public warning led to private reprimands, including from then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, she said.
“I specifically remember being upset after the call” with Azar, Messonnier told congressional investigators.
Messonnier and Azar did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In an event hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation in January, Azar said Messonnier had been “right” to issue her warning.
Anne Schuchat, who served as the CDC’s No. 2 official before retiring this year, also depicted chaotic efforts to control the government’s messages in those early months, telling the panel that Trump officials scrambled to schedule a briefing several hours after Messonnier’s public warning, even though “there was nothing new to report.”
Schuchat joined Trump and other officials for a briefing the very next day, where Trump insisted that the pandemic’s spread to the United States was not “inevitable,” even as Schuchat tried to warn Americans to prepare for “more cases.”
“Mixed messaging was a major problem,” Schuchat said in an interview with The Washington Post, characterizing that briefing as a low moment. “I think that the government lost credibility.”
Other officials detailed why the CDC held no news briefings between March 9 and May 29, 2020, in the earliest days of the pandemic, effectively muzzling the scientific agency as the coronavirus spread rapidly across the United States.
Kate Galatas, a senior CDC communications official, told the panel that the White House repeatedly blocked the agency’s media requests, including a planned April 2020 briefing that she said would have addressed the importance of wearing face coverings to contain the virus’s spread.
“I think it would have been important for timely information to be kept coming from CDC,” Galatas said, adding that officials in Vice President Mike Pence’s office, such as communications official Devin O’Malley, told her that the agency’s briefings were redundant to the White House press briefings led by Trump.
In a statement, O’Malley defended the decision to block the CDC from holding its own briefings.
“During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House Coronavirus Task Force held daily press briefings that routinely included senior CDC officials,” O’Malley said. “It’s imperative during a crisis that organizations communicate with a singular, clear, and consistent message, which is why the many communications errors on behalf of the CDC during the last year and a half have lead to a lack of trust for that organization among the American people.”
Galatas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The officials also corroborated that Trump appointees pressured the agency to change its regular research papers, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, to better align with the White House’s more optimistic messaging about the state of the virus.
The panel separately released emails that detailed how White House officials sought to shape CDC guidance on how meatpacking plants and faith groups should take precautions when responding to the virus.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the panel’s chairman, called on former CDC director Robert Redfield to sit for an interview with investigators, citing the ongoing probes. For instance, Clyburn said two officials have told the panel that Redfield had called for staff to delete an email from a Trump appointee seeking control over the agency’s scientific reports.
“These incidents degraded every major facet of the prior Administration’s public health response and materially damaged the standing of the premier public health agency in the eyes of the world,” Clyburn wrote in a letter to Redfield that the panel publicly released. “As CDC Director, you appear to have been unwilling or unable to prevent this unprecedented pattern of political interference.”
Clyburn’s panel also is requesting interviews with three longtime CDC officials — Martin Cetron, Daniel Jernigan and Henry Walke — saying that they “possess relevant information regarding key events under investigation.” The Department of Health and Human Services will review the panel’s request and respond directly to Clyburn, a spokesperson said.
The panel released additional excerpts from its interview last month with Birx, who alleged in the new excerpts that White House adviser Scott Atlas worked to curtail access to coronavirus tests last year.
According to Birx, Atlas helped spearhead changes to CDC testing recommendations in August 2020 that called for excluding people who did not have visible symptoms, even if they had been exposed to people infected with the virus.
“This document resulted in less testing and … less aggressive testing of those without symptoms that I believed were the primary reason for the early community spread,” Birx told the panel. She said she worked with Redfield and Walke to revise the agency’s testing guidance to again include asymptomatic people, with that updated version released Sept. 18.
Through a representative, Birx declined to comment. In a statement, Atlas disputed her portrayal of his role.
“At no time did I try to reduce testing,” Atlas said. “All testing guidelines were written by Dr. Redfield and the CDC.”