The Jolt: An ex-CDC director on ‘unprecedented, unacceptable political interference’ during a pandemic

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (J. Scott Applewhite / October 2014 AP file photo)
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (J. Scott Applewhite / October 2014 AP file photo)

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

After a few email glitches, we finally hooked up last night with Tom Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The delay was fortuitous.

In the meantime, the New York Times had reported that Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, had alleged that within the CDC was a “resistance unit” cooking the COVID-19 books to undermine President Donald Trump. He accused unnamed scientists of “sedition.”

More importantly, Caputo and his aides have attempted to assume editorial control of scientific reports that the CDC churns out on a regular basis – specifically, on the coronavirus pandemic.

This morning, we have an NYT follow-up report saying that Caputo is considering a leave of absence. But his remarks fit a pattern of belittlement that the Atlanta-based agency has endured since the start of the pandemic.

Frieden headed the CDC during the Obama administration, from 2009 to 2017. He led the agency during the Ebola outbreak in 2014-16. He’s now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit that addresses disease and epidemics in low- and middle-income countries.

But from his New York office, Frieden has become a staunch defender of the CDC against what he calls “unprecedented and unacceptable political interference.”

“On the one hand, fighting this pandemic without CDC front and center is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Frieden said Tuesday. "On the other hand, the health professionals at CDC continue to do good work.

“The CDC website is at 1.6 billion clicks. They’ve put out over a thousand documents, and 99.9% of the things on the CDC website are technically sound,” Frieden said.

“But that there are a few documents that aren’t scientifically defensible really is very problematic. I can tell you which of these documents to trust or not trust, but how could most people? What the administration has done in undermining trust in the CDC and the FDA is really damaging to our ability to fight this and future infectious disease emergencies.”

Earlier in the day, I’d spoken with James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. Facts aren’t necessarily being lost or covered up, Curran said. But the implications of those facts are – because CDC scientists who generate that data have been muzzled, largely barred from publicly discussing their findings.

Frieden agreed.

“Because they’re not briefing on it, we’re not as a country learning with the CDC,” he said. "A great example is masks. In January and February, virtually none of us thought masks would be important, because we assumed that COVID would behave as SARS behaved – where the more sick you are, the more infectious you are.

"In fact, that’s not how it behaves. It behaves just the opposite, where you’re most infectious before you feel sick. And because of that, it’s really important that we wear masks. Because we know lots of people don’t have symptoms and are very infectious.

“Yes, there was a shortage of masks – that probably confused some of the messaging. But if they had been briefing several times a week, the country would have come along on that message,” he said.

Frieden brought up the case of Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who on Feb. 25 engaged in a heavy dose of reality.

“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” she said. The stock market dropped, and President Donald Trump threatened to sack her.

“Not only was it exactly the right thing to say, it was exactly the right thing to say in the right way, at the right time,” Frieden said. And yet we have heard little from Messonnier since.

Then there was the incident in late August when the CDC quietly modified its coronavirus testing guidelines to exclude people who do not have symptoms of Covid-19 — even if they have been recently exposed to the virus.

“That’s an indefensible recommendation,” Frieden said. “Now, interestingly, just this week, they got into the [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report] that all contacts should be tested. But you’ve got these folks in Washington who for whatever reason think they know better but have never actually worked on an infectious disease emergency.”

We asked Frieden if he stays in contact with many colleagues from his CDC days. “Not much,” he said. “I don’t want to get people in trouble. And what can I do, in the end? People do appreciate that I’m out there, telling it like it is. But I wish I didn’t have to be.”

We follow Frieden on Twitter, and mentioned that over the last six months, his messages have read as if they come from a CDC-in-exile.

“Yeah, people have said that,” he said. “And again, that’s not a role I want to play.”

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GOP incumbent Mike Boyce and Democrat Lisa Cupid, candidates in the race for Cobb County Commission chair, confronted one another in a first forum on Tuesday. Unless you’ve lived in metro Atlanta for more than a decade or so, you can’t fathom the importance of these lines in the Marietta Daily Journal:

As county chair, Cupid said she would push to expand transit in Cobb.

“That doesn’t mean transit and buses will go everywhere,” she said, “but we should not be leaving money and opportunity on the table.”

Boyce agreed. He said a study the county conducted several years ago “finally did away with the mythology that MARTA isn’t popular in Cobb.”

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FILE - In this file image from video, Georgia State Sen. Nikema Williams speaks during the state roll call vote during the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.  Williams' campaign informed organizers she will not participate in a virtual debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Public Broadcasting set for Oct. 12 against Republican Angela Stanton-King, Atlanta Press Club, debate organizer Lauri Strauss said Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.  (Democratic National Convention via AP, File)
FILE - In this file image from video, Georgia State Sen. Nikema Williams speaks during the state roll call vote during the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Williams' campaign informed organizers she will not participate in a virtual debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Public Broadcasting set for Oct. 12 against Republican Angela Stanton-King, Atlanta Press Club, debate organizer Lauri Strauss said Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

Atlanta Press Club officials sent word Tuesday that Nikema Williams, the Democratic candidate to succeed the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, has declined a spot in next month’s debate series.

Williams was notified she would be represented in her Fifth District showdown against Republican Angela Stanton-King by an empty podium. The Democrat’s response on Twitter:

“Or a parent with a child in virtual kindergarten also working FullTime.”

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The state senator, who also chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, has little political incentive to appear in the debate. It’s an overwhelmingly Democratic district and she’s considered a lock for victory.

But there is a strategic argument for participation. Williams is already facing blowback for the hasty process that led to her nomination for the seat, raising concerns about a 2022 challenge. A dominating performance could help allay those fears.

Stanton-King, who has become a star in Black Republican circles, didn’t give Williams an easy out. She responded on Twitter: “Find a babysitter, I’ll pay.”

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In Washington, 165 members of the U.S. House have signed onto a letter urging Homeland Security officials to open an investigation into a whistleblower’s report about the treatment of detainees at an immigration center in Irwin County, including allegations that immigrants were undergoing hysterectomies at high rates.

Georgia’s Hank Johnson and Sanford Bishop added their names to the letter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, too, has called for an investigation.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, the Tifton Republican whose district includes the center, was among the few Republicans to publicly address the controversy. In a Tuesday statement, Scott said he had reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Those agencies, he said, “have assured us that they take all allegations seriously and are firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in their custody. We will continue to be in contact with them as they investigate these claims.”

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Teresa Tomlinson points out that among the leading candidates in the state’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate on June 9, she’s the only one who has experience governing, having served two terms as mayor of Columbus. “All candidates are not created politically equal,” she said. “We absolutely must nominate someone who’s won elections and governed — and governed well.” BenGray.com / Special
Teresa Tomlinson points out that among the leading candidates in the state’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate on June 9, she’s the only one who has experience governing, having served two terms as mayor of Columbus. “All candidates are not created politically equal,” she said. “We absolutely must nominate someone who’s won elections and governed — and governed well.” BenGray.com / Special

Teresa Tomlinson has become the latest Georgia Democrat fresh off an unsuccessful campaign to create a PAC to promote her interests and tout down-ticket candidates.

The former Columbus mayor recently launched Georgia Blue Project, which pushes a “reverse coattail effect” to drive attention to state legislative races that could help congressional candidates and White House contenders.

The new venture means that both of Jon Ossoff’s top rivals have each started PACs after his primary victory. Sarah Riggs Amico in August started a group aimed at helping women who seek public office.

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Donald Trump Jr. will headline a 6 p.m. rally today at the Savannah Convention Center on Hutchinson Island, per the Savannah Morning News.

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U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida is headed across state lines on Friday to talk up U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and his bid for U.S. Senate. Gaetz will be at the Cobb GOP for an afternoon event.

It reminds us of Gaetz' back-and-forth with Gov. Brian Kemp’s senior staffers shortly before his selection of Kelly Loeffler over Collins was made public. From that story:

An “acid-washed jean shorts” wearing Floridian with “Stacey Abrams syndrome.” An “oddly submissive” outsider telling Georgians what to do. A “cowardly” interloper who stuffs Pokémon cards in his pockets and “can’t cut it in south Georgia.”

Facing shots over his planned pick for an open U.S. Senate seat, Gov. Brian Kemp’s inner circle unleashed a special type of vitriol against U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida after he blasted the governor’s plans to select financial executive Kelly Loeffler.

With a vigor that evoked memories of the 2018 campaign, Kemp’s advisers slammed the Floridian after he called for the Georgia governor to be challenged in 2022 and questioned whether he could win re-election.

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State Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Lithonia, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2004, has resigned, likely triggering a special election to fill her seat, according to our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu. Gov. Brian Kemp accepted her letter of resignation on Tuesday, but her departure became effective Sept. 4.

Stephenson’s daughter, Taurean Stephenson, sent an email to House Speaker David Ralston’s office, announcing her mother’s intent to resign. Taurean Stephenson said she had been given power of attorney to act on behalf of her mother.

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The Federal Elections Commission sent U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s campaign a notice this week, seeking more details about roughly $13,000 in travel expenses. A campaign spokesman says Loeffler’s aides are working to resolve the issue and there was no wrongdoing.

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The latest TV ad by Georgia United Victory, a pro-Kelly Loeffler outfit backed by members of Gov. Brian Kemp’s political orbit cites U.S. Rep. Dough Collins' past life as a lawyer, calling him “a career politician helping career criminals.”

In Collins' defense, clients were often assigned to him and and his law partner (it was a two-man firm) because the defendant was unable to afford a lawyer.

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Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene’s one-time Democratic opponent made his withdrawal from the race formal on Tuesday when he declared himself a resident of Indiana and notified elections officials he had disqualified himself from the 14th District congressional contest.

Staffers for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have said Van Ausdal can’t be replaced on the ballot, given that his withdrawal comes within 60 days of the vote. From Jordan Fuchs, Raffensperger’s top aide:

“The Secretary of State is not going to initiate a candidate challenge at this late stage in the process when absentee ballots have already begun to go out. If Mr. Ausdal feels he can no longer serve, he is welcome to withdraw as a candidate.”

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One of Georgia’s most influential labor outfits has endorsed Senate candidate Jon Ossoff’s campaign against Republican David Perdue.

The Georgia AFL-CIO said Wednesday it would back the Democrat’s campaign, a week after endorsing Raphael Warnock in Georgia’s other U.S. Senate race.

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Everytown for Gun Safety’s political arm announced it was backing several more Georgia Democrats, including Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, and House candidates Nikema Williams and Carolyn Bourdeaux.

The group also debuted two new ads. One criticizes Republican Karen Handel’s record on firearm safety and the other focuses on Handel’s ties to President Donald Trump. Handel faces U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, in November, a candidate heavily supported by Everytown. McBath once worked for the gun control organization.

Handel’s campaign says that the Everytown ad ignores her support for the Stop School Violence Act, a GOP-led bill that provided money for school security and mental health resources but it did not include any gun control measures.

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A statewide poll of likely Georgia voters found that roughly three-quarters expressed support for “micro-grants” of federal stimulus dollars to offset the costs of virtual learning of school-aged children.

The poll was commissioned by the American Federal for Children and other groups pushing Gov. Brian Kemp to use a portion of the $105.7 million emergency relief fund from the federal CARES Act for one-time grants to families.

The poll found a plurality of Georgians (42%) spent more than $500 on learning supplies, child care and other education-related activities or supplies they wouldn’t have otherwise needed.

The survey was conducted by the polling firm Cygnal in late August, and has a margin of error of 3.87 percentage points.

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