Amid pandemic, confidence in CDC erodes with questions of political interference

Jack Barile had been waiting much of the summer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to publish his research on the most effective way to persuade people to wear masks in a pandemic.

A psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, Barile said the study he'd co-authored -- which found that people are more likely to wear masks if leaders promote a "positive attitude" about them -- was stuck in the federal review process. The agency and the White House, it seemed, were "slow-walking critical research without clear explanation," Barile said.

Then, just days before the study by Barile and his co-authors was finally scheduled to publish, Barile was walking to the park scrolling through the latest headlines on his phone when a photo of President Donald Trump filled his screen: Marching down a hallway at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump, who had refused to wear a mask in public, was seen donning one for the first time.

At the time, Trump had been under increasing pressure to wear one, including from members of his own party. But it wasn't until that July 11 hospital visit, three months after the White House recommended widespread mask-wearing, that he was seen publicly heeding the guidance. At the time, he said he decided to wear one because he'd be around wounded veterans who had "just got off the operating tables." He tweeted wearing a mask was "patriotic."

Barile's study published three days later, on July 14, along with two others that touted the importance of wearing a mask, including one co-authored by the CDC director himself.

"I couldn't help but just start laughing when I saw. The timing just seemed so ridiculous," Barile said.

Barile, who worked at the CDC for two years as a research fellow before taking his job at the University of Hawaii in 2012, said it could be "total coincidence" that the research publication came just days after the president's first appearance in a mask.

But if it wasn't, he wouldn't be surprised.

"Most at the CDC would tell you the same thing if they could. This stuff has gone on for a long time. Decades," Barile said.

At the same time, Barile also cautioned that he's never seen anything like this. "There's always been political influence on CDC publications, but it's been a lot stronger with the COVID situation," he said.

With more than 200,000 lives lost to COVID-19, the U.S. is facing a reckoning on science and politics. Even basic scientific research, like whether to wear a mask in a pandemic, is now being seen through the lens of the 2020 election and Trump politics.

That's a big problem, health officials say, because to overcome the pandemic, most Americans will have to agree on basic steps to stop the spread of the virus, whether it's wearing a mask or accepting a vaccine.

The White House, in response to ABC News, denied that "politics is influencing approvals or decisions," calling it a "dishonest narrative."

"Every decision the CDC and FDA has made under the Trump Administration has been data-driven to save lives, and this dishonest narrative that the media and Democrats have created that politics is influencing approvals or decisions is not only false but is a danger to the American public," White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in an email.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll released this month, fewer than 1 in 10 Americans have a great deal of confidence in Trump to confirm a vaccine's effectiveness, with another 18% reporting only a "good amount" of confidence.

"Frankly I'm not going to trust the federal government's opinion, and I wouldn't recommend to New Yorkers based on the federal government's opinion," said Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been accused by conservatives of politicizing the pandemic, at a Sept. 24 news conference.

For Bela Matyas, a health officer for Solano County Public Health in California, the politics involved is just dispiriting.

"As a local health officer I should be able to rely on my state and the federal officials to help me with understanding truth, but I don't," said Matyas, who has worked previously with the CDC to study novel coronavirus transmission in hospitals.

The result is a mentality that every locale seemingly is on its own -- but it raises the question, Matyas said, of whether that is the best way to deliver the best care to each and every community.

"Clearly, if we're all over the place in decision-making, we are doing a disservice to our community," Matyas said. "So not having a fallback, trustworthy source of credible data is a problem."

In recent weeks, media reports have detailed extensive efforts by Trump's political advisers to sway the findings of the administration's public health agencies.

According to emails obtained by Politico and the New York Times, political appointees have tried to influence CDC's weekly scientific digest to be more in step with the president's handling of the pandemic. And one of those advisers, Michael Caputo, a former HHS press secretary now on medical leave, accused the CDC in an online rant of harboring a "resistance unit" and called on Trump's supporters to arm themselves ahead of the election.

The media reports alarmed much of the medical field, as experts described the weekly reports by CDC as sacred.

"It goes through a lot of red tape, because it's representing this federal agency," said Dr. Leonard Mermel, a professor at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and medical director of Rhode Island Hospital's Department of Epidemiology and Infection Control.

"So despite all the checks and balances that have worked very well for decades, what's going on now appears to be radically different and with the potential for ulterior motives," said Mermel.

On Wednesday, more accusations of political meddling followed Trump's promise to review a vaccine guidance document by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The document would normally be subject to an interagency review, including by the White House Office of Management and Budget. But Trump also has repeatedly said a vaccine could be available before Election Day on Nov. 3.

The following day, the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine -- two private nonprofits dedicated to advancing scientific and medical research -- took the rare step of issuing a statement urging the administration to leave scientists alone.

"We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming," wrote Marcia McNutt, president of NAS, and Victor Dzau, president of NAM.

"It undermines the credibility of public health agencies and the public's confidence in them when we need it most," they wrote.

For their part, the CDC and its director, Robert Redfield, have sent mixed messages in communicating the public health message, including reversing guidance on the CDC's website, which already contains dozens of pages of duplicative and often conflicting advice on such matters as whether to send children to school and how to protect them.

This month, for example, the CDC abruptly changed its guidance on whether to get tested if a person doesn't have symptoms and whether there is evidence that the virus is airborne.

Redfield also has declined to address Trump's insistence that Redfield's timeline for a vaccine being available to most Americans only by summer 2021 is wrong. Yet, he adamantly denies that CDC has been influenced by politics either way.

"People don't understand the ability to suck energy out of people working 24-7 when they get unfairly criticized or unfairly characterized," he told a Senate panel this week.

Barile, the CDC study co-author and professor, agreed with that sentiment -- at least as it applies to the career scientists who are studying the pandemic. He said he'd never met anyone in his time at the CDC with an agenda other than to get out quality public health information.

"It is unfortunate that political influence appears to have entered a space where science should remain pure," he said.

ABC News' Benjamin Siegel contributed to this report.
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