Coronavirus and Inequality

Published — August 27, 2020

Analysis: Trump administration’s coronavirus advice is secret, fragmented and contradictory

Dr. Deborah Birx speaks to reporters in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Aug. 14, 2020, after meeting with Gov. Pete Ricketts and community and state health officials. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Private calls and unpublished reports leave many Americans and local officials in the dark.


This is a news analysis from the Center for Public Integrity.

From behind a podium and a black mask, Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum faced the press. It was late July, and one percent of his city had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

A reporter had a question: What did Bynum have to say about the newly leaked White House Coronavirus Task Force document that recommended Tulsa close bars and limit gatherings to 10 people?

The “alleged White House document” was “never officially presented to us … by either the federal government or the state government,” the mayor said. But he was familiar with the document’s recommendations, having read them online. “All of that remains very much on the table.” 

Fast-forward a month, at a press conference that looked exactly like the last, and Bynum still hadn’t received any of the weekly reports from the White House. “It was news to me that there had been eight different reports. I only knew about the one that was leaked to the media,” he said. “That’s all data that, of course, we would like to know.”

Indeed, the White House reports — chock full of local data and recommendations — would be useful for many city leaders, many of whom still don’t know what percentage of coronavirus tests in their metro areas are positive. But Bynum and others didn’t have that information. The White House was sending each state’s report directly to its governor and a select group of other officials instead of distributing the documents widely or posting them publicly.

The nation’s coronavirus response must be “locally executed, state managed, federally supported,” White House officials have said repeatedly. In fact, much of their public health advice has been secret, segmented and inconsistent. Federal guidance isn’t always reaching the local officials it’s meant to support. And scattershot messages mean that average citizens weighing visits to grandparents or countless other daily risks have limited  — and sometimes conflicting — information from the officials they are expected to trust.

The summer of secret warnings

In late June, the White House Coronavirus Task Force began sending reports to governors showing how their states were faring in the pandemic. Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the task force, held the documents aloft at a press conference July 8, but they weren’t distributed to reporters. Birx said several states were in the coronavirus “red zone” — with high numbers of cases — and should take special precautions, but Vice President Mike Pence delivered the primary message of the press conference: Reopen schools.

Later that month, the Center for Public Integrity obtained a copy of the compiled report for all 50 states and published it, revealing that 18 states were in the red zone. The next morning, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway suggested Public Integrity, a  30-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom, had nefarious motives for disclosing public information: “I don’t know about that particular document, and respectfully the Center for Public Integrity is an outside organization that I’m sure doesn’t support the president’s election,” she told reporters.

A spokesman for Pence, Devin O’Malley, later acknowledged the document’s authenticity. But the White House still didn’t release the reports and stayed mum on why it was keeping them secret. Weeks later, White House spokesman Judd Deere sent an email to Public Integrity that didn’t quite answer the question: “The White House Coronavirus Task Force is providing tailored recommendations weekly to every governor and health commissioner for their states and counties,” he wrote. “Local leaders are best positioned to make on-the-ground decisions for their communities … The United States will not be shut down again.”

Meanwhile, Birx hit the road, zigzagging across the country to meet with governors in person and privately urge some of them to ratchet up virus precautions. On closed-to-the-press conference calls with state and local officials, Birx warned individual cities that they should take “aggressive action” to curb the coronavirus, according to recordings obtained by Public Integrity. 

But officials from those cities weren’t always on the calls: Baltimore and Cleveland leaders missed a call in which Birx pinpointed them. And some of them weren’t getting the reports she was referencing. In late August, the most recent White House report the Arkansas Department of Health had was three weeks old. 

Public health experts say the reports should be public. “This is a pandemic,” Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage told Public Integrity in July. “You cannot hide it under the carpet.”

Dr. David Rubin, who has provided epidemiological modeling to the task force as director of PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, is also befuddled as to why the reports are secret. “I think we’d be in a lot different place today if we had national standards around certain things,” he said. But he doesn’t blame Birx or other scientists working with the White House. “They’re playing the hand that they were dealt.”

Custom-made or confusing?

In mid-March, a 4×6” blue-and-white postcard appeared in mailboxes across the nation, emblazoned with “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America” and both the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logos. On the back were a dozen lines of advice, including: “Even if you are young, or otherwise healthy, you are at risk and your activities can increase the risk for others.”

The postcard appeared in the days when the president, vice president, Birx and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci together updated the nation daily on television about the state of the coronavirus. The administration had already pressed the mute button on the CDC (though the agency posted guidance online, it wasn’t giving the regular briefings it had in past epidemics), but the White House was still attempting to send out a cohesive public health message.  

Then, as the economy cratered, Trump shifted gears to reopening and pushed responsibility for the pandemic response to the states. After decades of relying on national entities for public health advice and regulation — the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, the surgeon general and others — America handed responsibility for infectious-disease containment to the states. 

Doing so allows governors to respond to their unique virus conditions, defenders of the administration said. The U.S. needs “a decentralized approach” said Heritage Foundation visiting fellow Doug Badger, because states have police powers to enforce lockdowns and because they are “better suited to responding to this pandemic, where there is great variation between and within states. […] There’s no one-size-fits-all policy.” Indeed, epidemics unfold at different rates in different geographies, and it makes sense to adjust advice based on whether people live close together or far apart, and how widely the virus is spreading in their communities.

But experts say that even though some public health warnings should be specific to local areas, many messages, such as the need to wear masks, should be nationally consistent. Contradictory guidance undermines trust, and the virus exploits the communities with weakest defenses. “Diseases don’t care about national or state borders,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, Science Communication Lead at the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer organization collecting pandemic data. “You can’t look at this in a fragmented way otherwise we’re going to continue this fragmented progress.”

“Diseases don’t care about national or state borders.”

Jessica Malaty Rivera, Science Communication Lead at the Covid Tracking Project

And some think the Trump administration’s advice isn’t as tailored or helpful as it should be. “For weeks, the Trump Administration has been issuing these cookie-cutter reports based on little or no review of existing regulations or conditions on the ground, while failing to pull together a national strategy for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and response,” Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, wrote in an email. “None of the recommendations in these weekly reports have been paired with the resources or the federal support to implement them.”

In addition, Trump’s desire for state leadership has been selective. After weeks of insisting on a governor-led response, in July Trump Tweeted, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” and threatened to withhold federal funding from school districts that did not open their doors. 

Who do you listen to?

Splitting public health advice into pieces means that some of those fragments don’t line up. On a private call with state and local leaders earlier this month, Birx said colleges should be testing students as they return to campus, and even be prepared to do 5,000 or 10,000 tests in one day. But the CDC hasn’t endorsed such testing because its effectiveness hasn’t been “systematically studied.”

Nowhere has the fractured advice been more evident than on the topic of how to reopen K-12 schools. The CDC in May issued guidelines, but later replaced them with a more lenient version after the president objected. After insisting schools open their doors, Trump acknowledged that some hot spots may need to delay opening. CDC director Robert Redfield said that schools should go virtual if their areas have more than 5 percent test positivity — a threshold that only 17 states and the District of Columbia met as of Aug. 26 according to a New York Times tracker. Birx has stayed noticeably quiet on the topic. The secret reports from her task force recently endorsed West Virginia’s school reopening guidelines, which say schools must switch to virtual learning if daily new cases in a county exceed 25 per 100,000 residents.

All this leaves local officials with a dizzying set of choices and advice, stuck making the decisions others don’t want blame for.

“This really stinks for local health departments,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “Everybody wants to relinquish authority to the local health department. The authority ends up coming and going depending on how hard it is to address the issue. And it just is not fair to them.”

In addition, perhaps due in part to the mixed messaging, whatever advice the White House does have isn’t always followed. In Arkansas, where the task force has recommended that bars close, they remain open. In Georgia, where the task force recommended a state mask mandate, Gov. Brian Kemp sued to block Atlanta from requiring face coverings, though he later relented. In Tennessee in July, Gov. Bill Lee ignored Birx’s suggestion that he close bars, limit indoor dining and mandate masks.

All this has meant that in the first major pandemic in a century, despite the feeble and disjointed efforts of the White House to corral them, the United States were not united, not even in the messages sent to citizens. That has some experts worried about what’s to come in the fall, when the reluctance of some to be vaccinated could mean the nation fails to reach the threshold for herd immunity that would protect everyone. Rivera, of the Covid Tracking Project, is “absolutely terrified” about that possibility; united messaging is key when trying to help people understand the scientific rigor behind a vaccine, she said. “All it takes is one rumor to completely shift public health behavior.”

Help from the fourth estate

In Tulsa, Bynum can now see all the White House reports. That’s because Public Integrity published a recent Oklahoma report, and local journalists pressed the governor on why he hadn’t handed it out. Last week he agreed to post all of the state’s White House reports.

In other parts of the country, people still don’t know what White House experts are saying about their states or counties. The federal map of red, yellow and green zones — an easy-to-understand stoplight that could help people quickly decide whether to cross state lines, for example — remains off limits to the public. President Trump resumed daily coronavirus briefings this month, but Birx remains relegated to private calls and local press briefings on her treks across states. The CDC continues its silence; Fauci is recovering from a vocal cord surgery and can’t speak.

For more than a century, Congress has given the federal government a prominent role in helping stop the spread of disease from state to state. Americans can debate whether governors or the president should make the big decisions in this particular pandemic. But neither statute nor scientific wisdom puts limits on the federal government’s ability to dole out health advice. And there is no national security reason to make such advice secret.

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