The White House rejected on Monday an offer from the nation’s public health experts to lead the effort to track down and notify Americans who were exposed to a growing coronavirus outbreak linked to President Donald Trump and several top aides.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is widely considered the federal government’s authority in contact tracing, the public health best practice of reaching out to people at risk of acquiring an infectious disease and to identify others who were subsequently exposed.
In interviews and internal CDC communications reviewed by USA TODAY, current and former agency officials accused the White House of seeking to avoid learning the scope of the outbreaks. Without an independent investigation, they said, countless others may be exposed and never know it.
“CDC, when left in the hands of its scientists, makes tough decisions and helps implement them and maybe that’s not what the White House wants,” said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, a former CDC director and 26-year veteran of the agency. “They seem to be marching toward a different goal. It’s a petty one and a partisan one. And all of us pay the price.”
Nine months into the most deadly pandemic in a century, the sidelining of the CDC in the investigation into an outbreak as prominent as a White House-linked cluster that has infected at least 18 mostly prominent Republicans underscores the agency’s diminished influence.
The White House Medical Unit declined an offer of assistance from the CDC’s leadership during a Monday morning phone call, according to multiple sources within the agency. CDC Director Robert Redfield has been offering the agency’s help since Trump’s diagnosis was disclosed on Friday.
Trump was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland on Friday after confirming his diagnosis following a busy week during which the president interacted with people at events in eight states and Washington D.C. His contacts with confirmed cases now include at least three U.S. senators, the Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. First Lady Melania Trump has also tested positive for COVID-19.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner confirmed that the White House has not accepted the CDC’s offers to run the contact tracing but referred questions about the situation to the White House.
The White House has not shared specific details about its contact tracing effort, despite multiple requests by USA TODAY over several days. Spokesman Judd Deere said it is not true that the CDC is not engaged with the administration.
“The White House is following CDC guidelines and has a full-time detailed CDC epidemiologist on staff who has been here since March,” he said in a statement.
Authorities in Minnesota and the District of Columbia, where the president held events prior to disclosing his diagnosis on Friday, said they had not received details from the White House.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters on Monday said that his state continues to work on obtaining needed information needed for contact tracing from the White House, the RNC and the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, where the president held a fundraising event. State officials have also been working with the CDC to contact out-of-state attendees.
Some federal employees and attendees, including at least one journalist, who believe they were exposed at the White House said the federal officials who are supposed to be contact tracing have not followed up about locations, times and about other people who may have been exposed.
Dr. Rich Roberts, a retired pharmaceutical executive and major Trump donor, said he only left his home in Lakewood, New Jersey four times in the last six months: going through the drive-thru at his bank twice, attending his stepfather’s funeral, and listening to the president at his roundtable event in Bedminster on Thursday.
He received two emails from the New Jersey Health Department and Trump Victory campaign that did not ask who he had spoken to or touched. Roberts is a medical doctor who plans to quarantine again until a viable vaccine is approved. No officials reached out for contact tracing.
“We were all socially distanced from the president,” Roberts said. “I was the closest to him in the roughly hour long meeting. I’d probably be the canary in the mineshaft, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
In Minnesota, where Trump held a campaign rally in Duluth on Wednesday, the state health department said it was prepared to do contact tracing of any residents in close contact with the president.
“We have not yet had any contact with the White House or RNC or others at this time and have not received any lists,” Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz said in a statement.
He noted, however, that the extensive media coverage around the president’s infection has accomplished much of the goal of notifying his contacts and “made the need for a list almost moot.”
Officials in Washington DC also had received little information after infections were confirmed among multiple attendees of a White House event to introduce Trump’s pick for a new U.S. Supreme Court justice.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday the city had “reached out to the White House on a couple of levels, on a political level and a public health level, to make sure that any assistance we could provide could be rendered.” The city had not heard back from the White House in a substantive manner, Bowser said, but she acknowledged “a lot was going on and they have their hands full.”
“It would be useful to hear from the administration exactly how they are handing this so everybody could be reassured that it is being handled adequately and appropriately,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Experts said a prominent national outbreak is precisely when the CDC’s expertise would be expected to shine. The $7 billion federal agency was established to lead the nation through pandemics.
“In any normal administration, the CDC case investigators would be all over this,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, who helped lead the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak internationally. “This is why you have the CDC — to investigate clusters like this.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University and a former CDC investigator, told USA TODAY contact tracing is a sensitive business that can be compromised by politics.
“The last group I would want to do this is the White House because they come with political overtones,” he said. “You want a neutral party to do this, and the CDC would be that party.”
Additional reporting by Ashley Balcerzak, Nicolas Wu, Dinah Pulver and Tricia Nadolny
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