Emory public health dean: Trump politicizing CDC ‘unforgivable’

The dean of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health on Tuesday decried what he called the politically motivated damage done to public health messaging and to the CDC in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public health workers' credibility is vital in advance of a vaccine roll-out, the dean, Dr. James Curran, said in a video conference Tuesday with reporters. But the Trump Administration has politicized the pandemic to the point that CDC’s reputation has been eroded and its experts have been silenced.

That, he said, is “unforgiveable.”

“If prevention builds on science, and we are to, say, recommend as government that people get a vaccine,” he said, “those recommendations will come from some of the same people that have been demonized in the past as being part of the ‘deep state.’”

In the 1980s, Curran led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force investigating the then-new disease that became known as AIDS, and Tuesday he compared the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic to the Reagan administration’s response to HIV/AIDS.

For some it remains a black mark for Reagan: The administration was accused of ignoring the epidemic’s severity, for political reasons.

But this is worse, Curran said.

“I was there with the Reagan administration, and Ronald Reagan didn’t say the word (AIDS) in public for six years after the first cases were reported,” Curran said. “But CDC was never prevented from saying what we thought needed to be said. And we were never kept away from the press the way the CDC now is with COVID. With COVID, there’s interference. Which is even worse than neglect in many ways. The money is flowing. But the thing that isn’t flowing is the expertise and access to expertise.”

Beyond that, Curran said, are the president’s comments on the virus.

“I think President Trump has been largely anti-science,” Curran said. “He wants to be reelected president of the United States, and he’ll take whatever information he has to pursue that strategy. From a public health point of view, it’s not helpful to have lack of transparency and misinterpretation of information.”

Curran said he was glad for the country that Trump appears to be so healthy, after recently being diagnosed with COVID-19. But he said it is important to be honest about the uncertainty surrounding the disease. Remember, he said, Herman Cain died of the virus, and luck plays a role in coronavirus outcomes.

And while Trump declared that he is now immune, Curran said there’s uncertainty surrounding whether people acquire immunity from having COVID-19. There is a recent case of re-infection in Nevada.

“I think he may or may not be immune to new infection,” Curran said. “Ask the man in Nevada whether he thinks Donald Trump is immune to new infection.”

Curran also wants Trump and other prominent U.S. officials to be clear about the level of certainty with vaccines: That it requires testing to know if they’re effective, and then to know how effective they are.

If they only prevent half of infections, they’ll still be useful but it will require more work to get people to agree to get them.

A White House spokesman pushed back Tuesday, praising the CDC and saying the president’s highest priority was “the health and safety of the American public."

”The White House and CDC have been working together in partnership since the very beginning of this pandemic," the spokesman, Judd Deere, said in a written statement. "The CDC is the nation’s trusted health protection agency and its infectious disease and public health experts have helped deliver critical solutions throughout this pandemic to save lives.” The administration would cut no safety corners, White House officials added.