Virus Tests Spur Political Brawl Over CDC Shift, DOJ Inquiry

The Trump administration plunged deeper into a partisan divide over the federal Covid-19 response, stoking the debate over the role of politics in public health with a change to testing policy and an inquiry into deaths in states led by Democrats.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people without symptoms don’t necessarily need a test, drawing a rebuke from health experts who said it would make it harder to track Covid-19’s spread. And the Justice Department said it’s seeking information on why so many nursing home patients died in four states with Democratic governors, who quickly denounced the requests as politically motivated.

The moves, combined, could artificially lower the confirmed caseload and shift blame for deaths away from the administration -- politically benefiting the president, whose polling numbers have fallen as cases rose. Public-health experts said they worry these actions, along with a debate over the role of politics in treatment and vaccine research, could impede the country’s ability to stem the new coronavirus.

“We politicize public health at the public’s peril,” said Howard Forman, director of the Yale School of Public Health’s health-care management program. No matter who is elected, “what’s happening now undermines our trust in our public-health infrastructure and will doom our efforts to get maximum vaccine uptake.”

Brett Giroir, a top Trump administration official overseeing coronavirus testing, defended the CDC’s policy revision on a call with reporters Wednesday. The new recommendations say testing may not be needed for asymptomatic close contacts and those who attended large, risky gatherings but lack symptoms. The change wasn’t influenced by the White House, he said, and is intended to clarify to the public the limitations of such screenings, not to reduce how many tests are conducted. He said health and science experts were involved, and the White House coronavirus task force signed off on it.

Giroir said that Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the administration’s most prominent voices on the virus, was involved as well. However, Fauci was in surgery when the recommendations were presented to the task force on Aug. 20, his press office said.

Fauci “was not present for the meeting where the changes to the guidelines were discussed in detail and ultimately adopted by the Task Force,” NIAID said in a statement. While he’d seen an earlier version, “without having the benefit of the discussion that took place on August 20 at the Task Force meeting where the guidelines were finalized,” Fauci now “has some concern” about how they’ll be interpreted.

Democrats quickly piled on. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the move “indefensible.” California Governor Gavin Newsom said, “I don’t agree with the new CDC guidance, period, full stop.”

A senior administration official said the White House didn’t exert any pressure and that all task-force members were involved in the testing guidance changes.

Ironically, the Food and Drug Administration moved late Wednesday to authorize a 15-minute, $5 rapid test by Abbott Laboratories for emergency use, potentially providing wider access to testing.

Shortly after Giroir’s press call, the Department of Justice announced that it’s seeking data from four Democrat-led states -- New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- for a potential investigation into virus deaths at nursing homes. It said the states had required facilities to accept residents “often without adequate testing.”

In a press release, the agency compared Covid mortality rates in New Jersey and New York -- the early epicenters of the pandemic in the U.S. -- unfavorably to those in Republican-led Texas and Florida, which became hot spots later on and benefited from advancements in treating patients and stopping the virus’s spread.

While New Jersey and New York still lead U.S. states with the most deaths, Texas and Florida are now among the top five by fatalities, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The moves raised eyebrows further as the Republican National Convention is well underway, with President Donald Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday.

Trump’s Role

Trump has repeatedly insisted that he has done a great job battling the coronavirus, though he downplayed it for weeks and repeatedly predicted it would fade away while criticizing his health officials. He has also regularly drawn a line between blue states -- which were among the first hit -- and red states that saw cases rise later on.

The virus has weighed on Trump’s poll numbers. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has held a steady lead in the presidential race, though one that polls indicate has shrunk.

Biden has routinely hammered Trump over his handling of the pandemic, as the U.S. outpaces similar countries in cases and deaths. Trump could see a political bounce if he can distract from questions of his handling of the virus, or defer the blame for the glut of American cases and deaths.

Trump has said previously that he’d like testing slowed down, though the White House said it was a joke and health officials said they hadn’t been ordered to do so. The president regularly complains that U.S. testing totals are exaggerating the footprint of the virus and that young adults with only mild symptoms shouldn’t count as a case.

“We are focused on aggressively shielding the highest-risk individuals. Those living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities are less than 1% of the U.S. population but account for nearly half of all fatalities,” Trump said in mid-August, speaking at his New Jersey golf club. “That’s why we have rushed nursing home funding, protective gear, and rapid testing equipment. And we will announce additional measures to protect nursing home residents.”

This week’s Republican convention, meanwhile, has made little mention of the virus, though one video montage praised Trump for his handling, including selectively edited clips from New York’s governor, among others. Trump is, in other words, campaigning on the moments of praise by Cuomo while the Department of Justice takes aim at Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic.

The focus of the Justice Department inquiry is state policies that mandated nursing homes accept patients regardless of whether they had Covid-19.

Many public health experts believe that was an error early on in the crisis that contributed to high death tolls, though similar policies were enacted by other states. Cuomo, who has previously defended the policy and said the state was following CDC guidance, reversed it in May.

“At least 14 states -- including Kentucky, Utah and Arizona -- have issued similar nursing guidance all based on federal guidelines – and yet the four states listed in the DOJ’s request have a Democratic governor,” Cuomo and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement.

In Pennsylvania, where Governor Tom Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus has been a target for Republicans for months, more than two-thirds of the 7,624 Covid deaths in the state were from residents of nursing homes or personal-care facilities, according to the state health department.

In Michigan, which advanced a bipartisan bill this summer to put elderly Covid-19 patients in separate facilities, deaths of nursing-home residents made up 31% of the 6,690 virus fatalities as of Aug. 25.

Alyana Alfaro, a spokesperson for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, defended the state’s actions. It “followed CDC guidance and took numerous actions to protect residents of our nursing homes,” she said in an emailed statement.

“That this request from the Department of Justice, sent only to four states with Democratic governors, was announced by press release during the Republican National Convention speaks volumes about the nature of the review,” Alfaro said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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