HHS, CDC Officials Complain of Toxic Work Environments

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could soon see an exodus of demoralized political appointees and career employees, according to reports. 

What You Need To Know

  • Twenty-seven HHS political appointees have left the department since February, and senior leaders expect dozens more officials to depart if Trump loses the election, Politico reported
  • They say morale is down because the pandemic has required round-the-clock response, ignited internal policy battles and spurred negative headlines, sometimes alleging political interference
  • CDC staffers, however, told NBC News they have indeed been pressured by the White House on issues such as reopening cruise ships and houses of worship
  • The CDC employees say the election could be a “tipping point” for resignations at the agency if Trump wins

According to Politico, at least 27 political appointees have already left HHS since the coronavirus pandemic began in February, and senior leaders expect dozens more officials to exit if President Donald Trump loses his reelection bid next week.

Meanwhile, CDC staffers describe a “toxic” environment fueled by political pressure and public gaffes about COVID-19, NBC News reported. Unlike HHS, a CDC staffer said the election could be a “tipping point” for resignations at the agency if Trump wins.

“The house is not only on fire. We’re standing in ashes,” a veteran CDC staffer told NBC. 

Current and former HHS officials told Politico that morale is down at the department and its agencies because the health crisis has required round-the-clock response, ignited internal policy battles and spurred negative headlines.

The political appointees pointed to a recent incident in which career CDC officials posted revised guidance to the agency’s website explaining how coronavirus spreads in the air and then removed it, leading to accusations of political interference. The CDC said the “draft version of proposed changes” was “posted in error.”

Four HHS officials told Politico the accusations of interference were unfounded. 

“It’s pretty s**** to come to work and be accused of meddling every single time something somewhere goes wrong, even when no political [appointee] knows about it,” one official said, according to Politico.

Some HHS officials said they fear that if Democrats win the White House and majority rule in the Senate, Republican health policy experts could swiftly be shown the door. 

The picture at the CDC, according to NBC, is much different than the one painted by HHS in the Politico report. CDC employees say political meddling by Trump appointees is indeed happening and that they are struggling to influence key decisions about the pandemic. 

Staffers cited pressure from the White House to issue guidance on reopening cruise ships and houses of worship despite evidence suggesting those actions could worsen the spread of the virus, NBC reported. There was also a standoff between the White House and CDC over web administration credentials, with the White House wanting to independently edit content on the site, a former official told the network. 

The political pressure has been so great that a current CDC staffer said a supervisor recently instructed employees during a Zoom call to be loyal to the Constitution, not to the president, NBC reported.

“I don’t know if the damage to our reputation can be overcome with a new administration,” another employee told the network. “I worry it’s a permanent problem.”

White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern denied that politics has influenced decisions about the pandemic.

“President Trump’s coronavirus response is about saving lives, not politics,” Morgenstern told NBC. “The CDC occupies a critical seat on the Task Force, which provides appropriate attention, consultation, and input on coronavirus-related matters. Through the administration’s historic efforts, we are delivering testing and supplies to protect vulnerable populations, PPE and ventilators across the country, guidance to schools and businesses, and safe and effective treatments and vaccines in record time.”

Olivia Troye, a former aide to Pence who served on the White House’s coronavirus task force, told Spectrum News’ Samantha-Jo Roth, that mixed messages from the administration and the political pressure have created a toxic work environment at HHS and its agencies.

“Everything goes through the White House. I can tell you that first-hand,” said Troye, who has been critical of Trump since resigning. “Everything has to be cleared. Every guideline, everything that the public health community has announced. That’s not normal. That was not the case before.”

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