Caputo has confirmed his remarks. His sentiments are not in dispute.
What is most disturbing is the tepid reaction from Georgia’s political elite. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, whose Fourth District borders the CDC, has called for an investigation into a “corrupt” attempt by the White House to distort pandemic information.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is running a Trump-centered campaign for the Senate, is the only Republican who has weighed in — on what he calls “another witch hunt” aimed at President Trump.
And “witch hunt” is indeed the right phrase, though Collins has gotten the target wrong. Two days later, I’m still waiting for the first of any candidate on the November ballot to step up on behalf of several thousand Georgia neighbors who have just been accused of betraying their country and careers.
So is James Curran. “It should be condemned at the highest levels, because these people are serving their country. It’s also horribly demoralizing. We need scientists to want to work there. We need those people,” he said Tuesday. The cream of the crop come to the CDC, and we need to keep them."
Curran is dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. I called him because, at the heart of Caputo’s assault on the CDC is a dense, weekly publication called the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. You can read it online, but it’s aimed at public health professionals around the globe and written in that language.
Caputo has sought editorial control over the publication. Objections from him and his staff have delayed some reports while wording has been negotiated.
MMWRs, as they are called, have been shielded from political interference for decades. The most famous edition came out on June 5, 1981 and described an insidious disease that would ultimately become known as AIDS. A reporter for this newspaper, Charles Seabrook, was the first to make note of it.
Curran, who worked at the CDC at the time, had a hand in its publication. “I started working on [the virus] June 3. I was detailed to head up a small task force for about 90 days. That lasted about 15 years. And I’m still working on it,” Curran said.
Presidential interference wasn’t a problem then. Neglect was. It would be six more years before Ronald Reagan mentioned the disease in public. “There were some issues that were political, and to some extent partisan, but they weren’t changing science. We even published articles on needle and syringe exchanges,” Curran said.
Emory University is close to the main offices of the CDC, and Curran still has his contacts there. I asked him about the current climate.
“Some of them are afraid to make bold enough recommendations, but they’re still doing the work,” Curran said. No, the dean added, scientists shouldn’t be setting policy.
“But they shouldn’t be hindered from putting the facts out — or the recommendations that come from the facts. Certainly, they’ve been muzzled in those recommendations, and totally muzzled in the press,” Curran said.
Take, for instance, the June outbreak of COVID-19 at an overnight summer camp in north Georgia, attended by nearly 600 staffers and children. A CDC study, which documented how quickly the virus could spread among young people, was published as part of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Aug. 7.
“Cloth masks were required for staff members. Camp attendees were cohorted by cabin and engaged in a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, including daily vigorous singing and cheering,” the report said — noting that mask-wearing wasn’t universal, and that group singing might have contributed to the spread.
Caputo and others claimed that the timing was a deliberate attempt to undermine the president’s push on children returning to schools in the fall.
Here’s the thing: That report on the campers made absolutely no mention of the coming start of the school year. And yet it should have.
“If the person who wrote the article was allowed to talk to the press,” Curran said, “the natural question would be, ‘What are the implications for the opening of schools?’”
“But if you can keep them away from the press, you can bury it — even if it’s out there. You can stop the discussion,” Curran said.
“How is summer camp different from school? How is it the same as school? These are things that ought to be discussed. But the CDC people are afraid to bring these kinds of things up — because if they do, they’ll get shot down,” the Emory professor said.
The same discussions — not debates, but rational searches for solutions — have been curtailed when it comes to nursing homes, where 40% of coronavirus deaths have occurred. “It’s unconscionable. It’s a horrible thing. But it tells you that something drastic needs to be done,” Curran said. “Every home in the country needs to be rethought.”
Facts aren’t necessarily being lost or covered up, Curran said. But the implications of those facts are. “Public health is always political, but it should never be partisan. Of course, it’s political because you’re changing things,” he said. “This is ripe for bipartisanship. It’s the public health crisis of the century. It’s the third-leading cause of death in the country already. My God, don’t we care about that?”
I didn’t have an answer for him. But I’m willing to try an experiment. I have an assignment for anyone on the November ballot, Republican or Democrat. Even those of you who aren’t up for re-election until 2022 can participate.
On the social media forum of your choice, please publish the following words: “I do not believe my friends and neighbors who work at the CDC are seditious traitors to their country, and I reject those who would say so. I also believe my friends and neighbors at the CDC could use a little more support in fighting this pandemic.”
To my thinking, those words are easily digestible. But if you can’t bring yourself to express that thought, perhaps we need to know that, too.