It also revisited how CDC experts were disregarded in handling cruise ship outbreaks. As Ars reported at the time, CDC officials objected to the State Department’s decision in February to fly home American passengers infected with the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined at a port in Japan. CDC officials told ProPublica they were appalled by both the decision and its execution. One official, speaking of the method to separate infected passengers on a flight back to the US, noted: “There’s a four-foot gap at the top of the shower curtain that you bought from Home Depot—and you’re calling this a quarantine area? If I were to write a book, it would be called Operation Clusterfuck, and it would start with this chapter.”
When the agency was further brushed off in March when it proposed no-sail orders for the cruise industry, Martin Cetron, the agency’s veteran director of global migration and quarantine, exclaimed with anguish, “this is unconscionable” at a packed meeting. Though a no-sail order did eventually go into place, the Trump Administration again overruled the CDC in September on its recommendation to extend it into next year, seemingly bowing to the cruise industry’s wishes.
Cetron was again infuriated in March when Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller insisted that the CDC use its quarantine powers to keep migrants from crossing the US-Mexico border. Miller argued it would keep migrants from carrying the infection into the country. But Cetron noted to staff that Miller misrepresented data and overstated the threat. In the end, Cetron refused to sign the order.
“I will not be a part of this,” Cetron reportedly told a colleague while furious. “It’s just morally wrong to use a public authority that has never, ever, ever been used this way. It’s to keep Hispanics out of the country. And it’s wrong.”
CDC Director Robert Redfield signed the order.
ProPublica also detailed how White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx came to strip the CDC of the responsibility of collecting data on COVID-19 patients from hospitals. The move was aimed at streamlining data collection in order to get more accurate data faster. But it came at the expense of the CDC’s reputation and was done without the agency’s extensive experience and expertise at collecting and cleaning up the daunting amount of data on a daily basis. And Birx’s attempt failed spectacularly, putting data collection into the hands of an inexperienced private company that has provided far less data at a slower pace than the CDC. The report noted Birx’s reputation of having a “dictatorial” and “autocratic” style, a point echoed in a similar deep dive by Science Magazine.
The Science investigation noted that CDC staffers knew Birx’s plan would fail, with one staffer texting to another, “Birx has been on a monthslong rampage against our data. Good fucking luck getting the hospitals to clean up their data and update daily.”
Lastly, ProPublica’s investigation highlighted to role of Kyle McGowan, the CDC’s former chief of staff and main protector of Redfield. Though McGowan was a political appointee, “There was a sense that he’d gone native,” a senior scientist told the outlet. McGowan ended up defending and protecting CDC experts from the Trump Administration, particularly Michael Caputo, a Trump-appointed spokesperson to the Department of Health and Human Services.
In September, Caputo—a long-time Trump supporter, former Russian political advisor, and protégé of Roger Stone—claimed in a Facebook live video that the government’s scientists were engaging in “sedition” and said that the CDC is harboring a “resistance unit.” Caputo took leave of this post at HHS shortly after.
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