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President undercuts health experts — again — on schools

Jill Colvin and Mike Stobbe
Associated Press

Washington — The White House seating chart spoke volumes.

When the president convened a roundtable this week on how to safely reopen schools with coronavirus cases rising, the seats surrounding him were filled with parents, teachers and top White House officials, including the first and second ladies.

But the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, usually the leader of disease-fighting efforts, was relegated to secondary seating in the back with the children of parents who had been invited to speak.

President Donald Trump speaks during a news briefing Thursday at the White House

Intentional or not, it was a telling indication of the regard that President Donald Trump has for the government’s top health professionals as he pushes the country to move past the coronavirus. Whatever they say, he’s determined to revive the battered economy and resuscitate his reelection chances, even as U.S. hospitalizations and deaths keep climbing.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. hit the 3 million mark this week, with over 130,000 deaths now recorded. The surge has led to new equipment shortages as well as long lines at testing sites and delayed results.

States are responding.

At midnight Friday, Nevada was to enforce new restrictions on bars and restaurants in several areas including Las Vegas and Reno after a spike in cases. And New Mexico’s Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said her state was halting indoor restaurant service, closing state parks to nonresidents and suspending autumn contact sports at schools in response to surging infections within its boundaries and neighboring Texas and Arizona.

Yet Trump paints a rosy picture of progress and ramps up his attacks on his government’s own public health officials, challenging the CDC’s school-reopening guidelines and publicly undermining the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci.

“Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes,” Trump told Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity in a call-in interview Thursday, pointing, in part, to changes in guidance on mask-wearing over time.

In his latest beef with the CDC, the president accused the Atlanta-based federal agency of “asking schools to do very impractical things” in order to reopen. The recommended measures include spacing students’ desks 6 feet apart, staggering start and arrival times, and teaching kids effective hygiene measures to try to prevent infections.

After Trump’s scolding comment, Vice President Mike Pence announced Wednesday that the CDC would be “issuing new guidance” that would “give all-new tools to our schools.”

But the flap has touched a nerve amid increasing concern over how the administration has sidelined, muzzled and seemed to derail the CDC. Repeatedly now, the administration has shelved or altered CDC draft guidance, or even told the the agency to take down guidance it has already posted. That includes in early March, when administration officials overruled CDC doctors who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines because of the pandemic.

While Trump has led the way, he’s not the only one sending messages contrary to those of public health officials. At a briefing this week by the White House coronavirus task force, Pence’s message to those in states like Texas, Florida, California and Arizona where cases are rising, was simple: “We believe the takeaway from this for every American, particularly in those states that are impacted, is: Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Not so, said Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force’s response coordinator. She said those states should close bars, end indoor dining and limit gatherings “back down to our phase one recommendation, which was 10 or less.”

The school re-opening controversy is just the latest chapter in a depressing tale, said Jason Schwartz, a government health policy expert at the Yale School of Public Health.

“This reflects a failure on the part of the CDC director to defend his agency, his scientists and the science through the pandemic. And this is what has led to this crisis in the CDC’s public standing, and frankly will take years to recover,” Schwartz said.