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Live Covid-19 News: Political Appointees Meddled in C.D.C. Updates

2020-09-12 16:57:12
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Trump appointees at the Health and Human Services Department have meddled in the C.D.C.’s weekly disease reports.

Political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services have repeatedly asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise, delay and even scuttle reports on the coronavirus that they believed were unflattering to President Trump.

Current and former senior health officials with direct knowledge of phone calls, emails and other communication between the agencies confirmed on Saturday a report in Politico late Friday that the C.D.C.’s public Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports have been targeted by senior officials in the Health and Human Services’ communications office.

The reports, which one former top health official called the “holiest of the holy” in agency literature, are written largely for scientists and public health experts, to update them on trends in infectious diseases, not only the coronavirus but also other outbreaks around the country. They are guarded so closely by agency staff that political appointees only see them just before they are published.

The reports became the subject of intense scrutiny this summer by Michael Caputo, a Republican political operative and former Trump campaign official the White House installed as the top spokesman at the department in April, despite his having no background in health.

Mr. Caputo himself said on Saturday the Politico’s report was largely accurate, but he denied that there was any overt pressure involved. He said that the primary person involved in critiquing the reports, Paul Alexander, an assistant professor of health research at McMaster University in Canada whom he hired to advise him on the science of the pandemic, simply offered direct reactions to the drafts of the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.

“He digs into these M.M.W.R.s and makes his position known, and his position isn’t popular with the career scientists sometimes,” Mr. Caputo said of Mr. Alexander. “That’s called science. Disagreement is science. Nobody has been ever ordered to do anything. Some changes have been accepted, most have been rejected. It’s my understanding that that’s how science is played.”

In emails obtained by Politico and confirmed to The Times by a health official with direct knowledge of them, Mr. Alexander accused C.D.C. scientists of attempting to “hurt the president,” referring to the weekly reports as “hit pieces on the administration.” Mr. Alexander asked Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, to edit reports that had already been published that he believed overstated the risks of the virus for children and undermined the administration’s efforts to encourage school reopenings.

The meddling from H.H.S. concerned Dr. Redfield, according to one former senior health official, who often pushed back when Mr. Caputo called to pester him about the reports.

Inside the C.D.C., employees expressed outrage and demoralization on Saturday over the reports of interference.

The University of Oxford said it was moving ahead in the United Kingdom with trials of a coronavirus vaccine it developed in partnership with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, after passing a safety review that was prompted when a participant in the United Kingdom appeared to have developed a serious neurological condition.

The trials were placed on hold less than a week ago, as researchers investigated whether the vaccine may have been the cause. A safety panel reviewed the findings and notified the government’s Medicines Health Regulatory Authority, which then confirmed it was safe to restart the trials in Britain.

A statement from the university on Saturday did not mention the prospects for trials that have been suspended held in India, Brazil, South Africa and the United States.

The statement also did not offer any clarity about the patient’s condition. “We cannot disclose medical information about the illness for reasons of participant confidentiality,” the statement said. A statement from AstraZeneca added that the relevant information would be shared with “all trial investigators and participants” and would also “be disclosed on global clinical registries, according to the clinical trial and regulatory standards.”

To date, roughly 18,000 individuals worldwide have already received this particular vaccine. AstraZeneca is one of just three companies with vaccines in late-stage clinical trials in the United States.

While late-stage trials are designed to test whether vaccines are indeed safe across large populations, the university said it anticipated that some participants would experience adverse effects.

“In large trials such as this, it is expected that some participants will become unwell and every case must be carefully evaluated to ensure careful assessment of safety,” it said in a statement.

Scientists largely praised AstraZeneca’s decision to pause trials and defer to a thorough review by an independent board of experts. The suspension appeared to be the second time that AstraZeneca has halted vaccine trials because of questions surrounding severe neurological symptoms in recipients.

A report published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that young children at three child-care facilities in Utah transmitted the virus to staff members, family and the surrounding community, even while some of the children were asymptomatic.

The findings undermine some previous assertions about the likelihood that the very young could spread the virus. Studies from South Korea and other countries have suggested that children under 10 are less likely to spread the virus than adults.

The new research, published Friday, traced cases at three Salt Lake City facilities, including one in which an 8-month-old contracted the virus and transmitted it to both parents.

Researchers reviewed the contact-tracing data related to outbreaks at the child-care facilities between April 1 and July 10. The study found that during that time at least 184 people, 74 adults and 110 children, had been exposed to someone with the virus in those facilities. At two of the facilities, the children were all younger than 10; the third had an age range up to 13.

Of the 184 people exposed, 31 later tested positive for the virus, including 13 children. The study reported that 12 of those children had passed the virus along to at least 12 of their 46 contacts outside the centers. “Six of these cases occurred in mothers and three in siblings of the pediatric patients,” the study said. At least one parent was hospitalized.

The study had several critical limitations:

  • The testing strategy changed over time. For at least part of the study only symptomatic individuals were tested, which may have led to an undercount of cases.

  • Each of the three facilities was closed for some portion of the study period, during a statewide lockdown, limiting is use in suggesting patterns for child-care facilities at large.

Between April and July 10, when the study was conducted, guidance from public health experts shifted drastically, most notably regarding face coverings. In Utah, a mask mandate was not issued until July 23 and never applied to “children in a child-care setting.”

The study’s authors recommended that workers at child-care facilities wear masks at all times, especially when children are too young to wear them, and emphasized the importance of regular testing with timely results.

During the surge of Covid-19 cases this spring that filled the Brooklyn Hospital Center’s emergency room and intensive care unit with the critically ill and the dying, the staff went in day after day, trying to save as many lives as they could.

A photographer for The Times, Victor J. Blue, created a series of portraits of these hospital workers during that grueling first wave. He and Sheri Fink, the reporter who spent days inside the hospital then, later interviewed them with a colleague, Catrin Einhorn, as they braced for a second wave.

From the doctors and nurses to the workers serving behind the scenes, all understood their roles were both critical and potentially fatal. Fighting the pandemic required sacrifice and courage from workers of all stripes, in the laundry room and the supply depot, the laboratory and the security desk, all the way to the chief executive’s office.

Many spoke in battle metaphors. The virus seemed to come from all sides, they said, and threatened to spare no one. They talked about the front line, and being called to duty, and “training for war.”

“Even when I think about it right now,” said Dr. Kiran Zaman, a critical care fellow, “it gives me goosebumps. It was a very scary, very overwhelming experience. It was a nightmare.”

More than 1,000 protesters gathered in Auckland, New Zealand, on Saturday for a “freedom rally” aimed at opposing the country’s lingering lockdown — a demonstration that included a woman who, for critics of the lockdown, has come to exemplify the harshness of the nation’s approach to the pandemic.

Known simply as LK, the woman was sentenced last month to 14 days in jail for leading her three children out of a quarantine facility to attend a funeral for the children’s father after they had tested negative for the virus. On Saturday, she appeared but did not speak.

“She is one New Zealander who has suffered a considerable loss because of the government’s responses to Covid-19,” said one of the day’s speakers.

Auckland is still under Alert Level 2.5, meaning that social gatherings of more than 10 people are not allowed.

But with only two new cases of community transmission reported on Saturday — and 108 active cases nationwide — critics are questioning whether the New Zealand government has been too slow to ease restrictions. Weekly protests against the lockdown have been growing.

“We want our rights and freedom back,” Jami-Lee Ross, a leader of Advance NZ, a new fringe political party that says it stands for freedom and sovereignty. He told the crowd that living in lockdown was “wrong and needed to stop.”

The authorities were mostly passive. As the crowd marched peacefully through downtown Auckland, carrying signs and chanting “we do not consent,” police officers wearing masks simply watched.

How has the pandemic affected people’s honesty?

A recent Brock University study of 451 adults ages 20 to 82 in the United States found that people who believed they had contracted the coronavirus weren’t always honest about it. Thirty-four percent of participants who had tested positive said they had denied having symptoms when asked by others, and 55 percent reported some level of concealment of their symptoms.

Twenty-five percent of participants reported that they had in some way concealed their physical distancing practices. That rate increased among those with Covid-19, according to the study, published last month in The Journal of Health Psychology.

Women were more likely to disclose health symptoms than men were, researchers said, and older adults were more honest about their virus status and behaviors.

But the exact reasoning behind lying during the pandemic is complicated and may be related to the environment, according to David M. Castro, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor of psychology at Adelphi University and the City College of New York.

“I think that so much is barred from someone right now,” Dr. Castro said. “There’s a lot of loneliness, a lot of depression stemming from loneliness.”

Robert Feldman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships,” said his research showed that people typically tell three lies within the first 10 minutes of meeting someone else.

“It’s part of what we do as members of society,” he said. “We tell people that we’re feeling well when we’re not feeling so well.”

About 70 cars crammed into a downtown Los Angeles parking lot surrounded by high rises and a smattering of food trucks on Thursday night to watch “Concrete Cowboy,” a father-son film starring Idris Elba and set in northern Philadelphia’s Black cowboy community.

In terms of movie premieres, it was unorthodox.

“It is a dream come true,” Ricky Staub, the 37-year-old white filmmaker making his directorial debut, said while standing in front of a huge screen. “I don’t know when you dream of releasing your movie it’s at a drive-in, but I never dreamed that my first movie would be an all-Black western set in Philly.”

Mr. Staub had ambitious plans when “Concrete Cowboy” landed coveted spots in the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. The plans all changed when Telluride was canceled because of the pandemic and Toronto opted for a hybrid model that features in-person screenings for Canadian audiences and a virtual version for everyone else.

For small indie films like “Concrete Cowboy,” the loss of traditional film festivals means not having a chance to build word-of-mouth momentum that could be the difference between becoming an unlikely Oscar darling or another also-ran in the video-on-demand market.

At the Venice Film Festival, held in person with certain safety restrictions, “One Night in Miami” — the directorial debut of the Oscar-winning actress Regina King — has already generated early awards chatter. Amazon recently bought it in a bidding war.

California is at the center of increasing concerns about extensive fraud in a federal program that provides unemployment benefits to freelancers, part-time workers and others lacking a safety net in the pandemic.

At the same time, there is growing evidence of problems keeping track of how many people are being paid through the program. The Labor Department has reported about 15 million claims for benefits nationwide. A comparison of state and federal records by The New York Times suggests that total may overstate the number of recipients by five million or more.

The program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, is part of a $2.2 trillion relief package enacted in March. In the latest Labor Department tally, the program accounted for nearly half the total recipients collecting jobless benefits of any kind.

It appears that nearly seven million people are collecting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits in California alone, far more than its population would suggest. The state’s own data suggests that the number may be less than two million. Experts on the unemployment system say such discrepancies seem to reflect multiple counting of individual applications as states rushed out payments.

But a surge in new claims in California is attributed not to accounting, but to fraud.

Fraud is not uncommon in hastily assembled disaster programs, but signs of trouble with this program have been surfacing for months as people who did not file claims found benefits issued in their names. A growing number of states have signaled that the problems with the program go beyond the routine.

Colorado said on Thursday that in a six-week stretch this summer, 77 percent of new claims under the program were not legitimate.

Reporting was contributed by Noah Weiland, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Abby Goodnough, Ben Casselman, Damien Cave, Patricia Cohen, Helene Cooper, Conor Dougherty, Rebecca Halleck, Javier C. Hernández, Jonathan Huang, Mike Ives, Apoorva Mandavilli, Zach Montague, Dan Powell, Nelson D. Schwartz, Nicole Sperling, Jim Tankersley, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Carl Zimmer.

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