By Robert A. Vella
The spread of the coronavirus pandemic is now picking up steam in Southern and Midwestern states controlled by Republicans despite their attempts to conceal the scale of the contagion. Here’s a graph showing two states from each of those regions:
Formed in 1946 during the Truman administration, the nearly 74 year-old Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been at the forefront of America’s effort to combat and eradicate deadly infectious diseases around the world. Aside from a few early exceptions (e.g. the despicable Tuskegee syphilis experiment 1932-1972), the CDC has a very long list of public health accomplishments particularly regarding its collaborative work with the World Health Organization since 1956. Especially over the last three decades, the CDC has built a renowned global reputation for excellence in medical science… until, that is, two big societal earthquakes began fracturing its once-solid foundation.
The first quake hit early in 2017 when Donald Trump became president. Initially, the CDC largely avoided Trump’s attention other than his repeated attempts to cut its funding (see: Did Trump try to cut the CDC’s budget as Democrats claim?: ANALYSIS). Then, the bigger second quake struck exactly three years later when COVID-19 emerged in the U.S. Trump’s malignant narcissism prevented him from recognizing and responding to the impending public health crisis (which subsequently triggered a devastating economic collapse); and, instead, he reacted to the national emergency exclusively as a political threat to him personally. Consequently, tensions between the CDC and the White House steadily mounted over public policy priorities as medical experts stressed factual information and transparency while high-level officials demanded strict adherence to Trump’s political agenda. In this battle, a tragic outcome was inevitable.
As someone who has had several such experiences in my professional career, I can tell you what happened inside the CDC without having been there. Dedicated scientists and technicians, no matter how highly they might rise within organizations, usually do not occupy the top positions of authority. Those who are assigned high-level decision-making responsibilities must contend with a wider array of concerns such as business profitability, public relations, and internal politics. That’s why administrative personnel typically earned university degrees in management and not in specific technical fields of study. Whenever hierarchical conflict arises, the subordinate personnel face a dilemma. Do they stand firm on their professional expertise, or do they obey orders?
Most often, people make the pragmatic, expedient choice. Doing so may cause them personal grief, but it’s better than losing status or even their jobs. Very few individuals have the courage of their convictions to risk personal loss. When that does happen, it can attract a lot of attention as in recent cases of government whistleblowers.
Consider the plight of federal employees under a megalomaniacal boss like President Trump. This is what CDC professionals are facing right now as they try to do their jobs amidst a deadly pandemic and political interference. We shouldn’t be surprised that they are succumbing to the pressure. We also shouldn’t be surprised that the CDC, like everything else Trump touches, is being destroyed.
Here’s today’s news:
The coronavirus pandemic continues its deadly march through rural counties and small towns across the country, led by flareups in Southern and Midwestern states that are becoming new epicenters of the outbreak.
Almost 80 percent of Americans now live in counties where the virus is spreading widely, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.
In the last week, 176 counties have started to see substantial spread of the virus. The vast majority of those, 159, are smaller exurban or rural counties. The increased transmission in those areas shows the virus’s spread outward from its initial hubs in major cities like New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Seattle and New Orleans and into neighboring regions.
But the virus is also beginning to attack some cities that avoided an initial wave, a troubling reminder that it could still infect millions of Americans who have so far been safe.
The numbers are part of five planning scenarios that “are being used by mathematical modelers throughout the federal government,” according to the CDC. Four of those scenarios represent “the lower and upper bounds of disease severity and viral transmissibility.”
The fifth scenario is the CDC’s “current best estimate about viral transmission and disease severity in the United States.”
One expert quickly pushed back on the CDC’s estimates.
“While most of these numbers are reasonable, the mortality rates shade far too low,” biologist Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington told CNN.
Bergstrom, an expert in modeling and computer simulations, said the numbers seemed inconsistent with real-world findings.
“Estimates of the numbers infected in places like NYC are way out of line with these estimates. Let us remember that the number of deaths in NYC right now are far more than we would expect if every adult and child in the city had been infected with a flu-like virus. This is not the flu. It is COVID,” Bergstrom said.
“As I see it, the ‘best estimate’ is extremely optimistic, and the ‘worst case’ scenario is fairly optimistic even as a best estimate. One certainly wants to consider worse scenarios,” Bergstrom said of CDC’s numbers.
“By introducing these as the official parameter sets for modeling efforts, CDC is influencing the models produced by federal agencies, but also the broader scientific discourse because there will be some pressure to use the CDC standard parameter sets in modeling papers going forward,” he said.
“Given that these parameter sets underestimate fatality by a substantial margin compared to current scientific consensus, this is deeply problematic.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged Thursday that it is combining the results from viral and antibody COVID-19 tests when reporting the country’s testing totals, despite marked differences between the tests.
First reported by NPR’s WLRN station in Miaimi, the practice has drawn ire from U.S. health experts who say combining the tests inhibits the agency’s ability to discern the country’s actual testing capacity.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic. “How could the CDC make that mistake? This is a mess.”
A study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents found that those who received an antimalarial drug promoted by President Trump as a “game changer” in the fight against the virus had a significantly higher risk of death compared with those who did not.
People treated with hydroxychloroquine, or the closely related drug chloroquine, were also more likely to develop a type of irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, that can lead to sudden cardiac death, it concluded.
The study, published Friday in the medical journal the Lancet, is the largest analysis to date of the risks and benefits of treating covid-19 patients with antimalarial drugs. It is based on a retrospective analysis of medical records, not a controlled study in which patients are divided randomly into treatment groups — a method considered the gold standard of medicine. But the sheer size of the study was convincing to some scientists.
The chief scientist brought on to lead the Trump administration’s vaccine efforts has spent the last several days trying to disentangle pieces of his stock portfolio and his intricate ties to big pharmaceutical interests, as critics point to the potential for significant conflicts of interest.
The scientist, Moncef Slaoui, is a venture capitalist and a former longtime executive at GlaxoSmithKline. Most recently, he sat on the board of Moderna, a Cambridge, Mass., biotechnology firm with a $30 billion valuation that is pursuing a coronavirus vaccine. He resigned when President Trump named him last Thursday to the new post as chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the federal drive for coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
Just days into his job, the extent of Dr. Slaoui’s financial interests in drug companies has begun to emerge: The value of his stock holdings in Moderna jumped nearly $2.4 million, to $12.4 million when the company released preliminary, partial data from an early phase of its candidate vaccine trial that helped send the markets soaring on Monday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed State Department officials to find a way to justify the emergency declaration that he had already decided to implement in order to fast-track the $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year — stunning career diplomats, four sources have told CNN.
“They seemed to have a game plan and it had to be justified,” said a State Department official who told CNN they had communicated what happened to the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General during an interview late last year, as part of the watchdog’s investigation into Pompeo’s move to fast track the sale.
The probe into the secretary’s push on the Saudi weapons sale is in the spotlight after President Donald Trump fired State Department inspector general Steve Linick, at Pompeo’s request last week.