A CDC official said the Trump White House “forced” the agency to weaken COVID guidance for worship houses.
A May 2020 email exchange obtained by Congress shows the tug-of-war between the CDC and White House.
Dr. Jay Butler wrote in a May 24 email that he feared people would “get sick and die.”
A top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the Trump White House “forced” the agency to relax its COVID-19 guidance for houses of worships, leaving him worried that people would “get sick and die” as a result, according to a newly-unveiled May 2020 email thread.
A partially redacted May 2020 exchange between Dr. Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases, and Capt. Jennifer McQuiston, a veteran CDC official and principal deputy on the agency’s COVID-19 Response, are included in a batch of new emails obtained by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus.
The congressional probe has revealed more information about how the White House under former President Donald Trump interfered with the CDC’s public health guidance. Throughout 2020, top White House officials successfully strong-armed career public health officials into relaxing their recommendations to fit the messaging that downplayed the severity of the virus and pushed to “reopen” the US economy.
One of those episodes occurred in late May 2020, when the White House tasked the CDC with issuing detailed guidance for houses of worship on a compressed timeline — and then made the agency replace its already-published guidelines with a version that fit the White House’s talking points.
In an early morning email on May 24, Butler expressed gratitude to McQuiston and other CDC officials for the “hard work and midnight oil” that went into the agency’s original guidance “with very little notice” and “the agile responsiveness in getting the WH version up ASAP last night, as we were directed to do.”
“This is not good public health — I am very troubled on this Sunday morning that there will be people who will get sick and perhaps die because of what we were forced to do,” Butler added. “Our team has done the good work, only to have it compromised.”
The email chain and particularly McQuiston’s detailed May 23 timeline on the back-and-forth between the CDC and the White House creates a detailed contemporaneous record of the tug-of-war between the agency and the White House.
The CDC rushed to put up its original COVID-19 guidance for houses of worship and worship services on May 22, 2020, in response to Trump’s spur-of-the-moment May 21 pronouncement that the CDC would issue such guidance and his declaration on the afternoon of May 22 that the White House was deeming churches to be “essential business.”
McQuiston noted that “the timeline for this guidance was incredibly fast and did not permit usual clearance processes,” but the CDC, which also had to coordinate with other federal agencies, “made a bona fide effort to meet clearance request needs under the timeframe.”
Then, “around 6:45 pm” on May 23, McQuiston wrote, CDC officials were ordered by the White House to remove the already-published document “and put up their approved version.” He added: “At 7pm, I made the request of the web team.”
In response, Butler thanked McQuiston for the detailed tick-tock of the back-and-forth between all the parties and raised concerns with the White House’s guidelines in an email sent around 11 p.m. on May 23.
“I must admit, as someone who has been speaking with churches and pastors on this (and as someone who goes to church), I am not sure [I] see a public health reason to take down and replace” the original CDC guidance, Butler said.
He also flagged the following discrepancies between the CDC’s initial guidance and the version the White House made the agency put up instead:
“A couple of references to the 1st Amendment in the WH version.”
“A recommendation to reduce lines and queues is not the WH version.”
“All references to face coverings are missing in the WH version.”
“References to considering virtual events are absent from the WH version.”
“The brief section of the importance of continuing to provide spiritual and emotional care is not the WH version.”
Butler concluded that “the version we had to post tonight does not have answers to a number of the questions we have been asked by the faith community and lacks a number of recommendations for other settings to support reopening as safely as possible.”
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