The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Monday pulled revised guidance from its website that had said airborne transmission was thought to be the main way the coronavirus spreads, saying it was “posted in error.”
The sudden change came after the new guidance had been quietly posted on the CDC website on Friday.
“CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19),” the CDC wrote. “Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.”
The CDC guidance on the coronavirus is now the same as it was before the revisions.
The change and the the reversal comes as the CDC comes under extensive scrutiny over whether decisions by and guidance from government scientists are being affected by politics.
Just last week, President Trump contradicted CDC Director Robert Redfield on the timing of a vaccine and the necessity of wearing masks.
Public health experts were pleased with the updated guidance, saying evidence shows COVID-19 can be spread through the air and that the public should be made aware of that fact.
The World Health Organization issued a warning in July, saying that coronavirus could be spread through people talking, singing and shouting after hundreds of scientists released a letter urging it to do so.
The CDC said the guidance posted Friday was a “draft version of proposed changes.”
It is not clear if that draft will eventually become the CDC’s guidance, or if it will go through additional changes.
CNN first reported the new guidance on Sunday.
The now-deleted guidance had noted that the coronavirus could spread through airborne particles when an infected person “coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breaths.”
“There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes),” the agency had written. “In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.”
“These particles can be inhaled into the nose, mouth, airways, and lungs and cause infection,” the deleted guidance said. “This is thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
The coronavirus is spiking around campuses from Texas to Iowa to North Carolina as students return.
Last month, facing a budget shortfall of at least $75 million because of the pandemic, the University of Iowa welcomed thousands of students back to its campus — and into the surrounding community.
Iowa City braced, cautious optimism mixing with rising panic. The university had taken precautions, and only about a quarter of classes would be delivered in person. But each fresh face in town could also carry the virus, and more than 26,000 area residents were university employees.
“Covid has a way of coming in,” said Bruce Teague, the city’s mayor, “even when you’re doing all the right things.”
Within days, students were complaining that they couldn’t get coronavirus tests or were bumping into people who were supposed to be in isolation. Undergraduates were jamming sidewalks and downtown bars, masks hanging below their chins, never mind the city’s mask mandate.
Now, Iowa City is a full-blown pandemic hot spot — one of about 100 college communities around the country where infections have spiked in recent weeks as students have returned for the fall semester. Though the rate of infection has bent downward in the Northeast, where the virus first peaked in the U.S., it continues to remain high across many states in the Midwest and South — and evidence suggests that students returning to big campuses are a major factor.
In a New York Times review of 203 counties in the country where students comprise at least 10 percent of the population, about half experienced their worst weeks of the pandemic since Aug. 1. In about half of those, figures showed the number of new infections is peaking right now.
Despite the surge in cases, there has been no uptick in deaths in college communities, data shows. This suggests that most of the infections are stemming from campuses, since young people who contract the virus are far less likely to die than older people. However, leaders fear that young people who are infected will contribute to a spread of the virus throughout the community.
The surge in infections reported by county health departments comes as many college administrations are also disclosing clusters on their campuses.
*Brazos County, Tex., home to Texas A&M University, added 742 new coronavirus cases during the last week of August, the county’s worst week so far, as the university reported hundreds of new cases.
*Pitt County, N.C., site of East Carolina University, saw its coronavirus cases rise above 800 in a single week at the end of August. The Times has identified at least 846 infections involving students, faculty and staff since mid-August.
*In South Dakota’s Clay and Brookings counties, ballooning infections in the past two weeks have reflected outbreaks at the state’s major universities. In McLean County, Ill., the virus has been spreading as more than 1,200 people have contracted the virus at Illinois State University.
*At Washington State University and the University of Idaho, about eight miles apart, combined coronavirus cases have risen since early July to more than 300 infections. In the surrounding communities — rural Whitman County, Wash., and Latah County, Idaho — cases per week have climbed from low single-digits in the first three months of the pandemic, to double-digits in July, to more than 300 cases in the last week of August.
The Times has collected infection data from both state and local health departments and individual colleges. Academic institutions generally report cases involving students, faculty and staff, while the countywide data includes infections for all residents of the county.
It’s unclear precisely how the figures overlap and how many infections in a community outside of campus are definitively tied to campus outbreaks. But epidemiologists have warned that, even with exceptional contact tracing, it would be difficult to completely contain the virus on a campus when students shop, eat and drink in town, and local residents work at the college.
The potential spread of the virus beyond campus greens has deeply affected the workplaces, schools, governments and other institutions of local communities. The result often is an exacerbation of traditional town-and-gown tensions as college towns have tried to balance economic dependence on universities with visceral public health fears.
In Story County, Iowa, a local outcry following a burst of new Iowa State University cases pressured the university on Wednesday to reverse plans to welcome 25,000 football fans for its Sept. 12 opener against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In Monroe County, Indiana, the health department quarantined 30 Indiana University fraternity and sorority houses, prompting the university to publicly recommend that members shut them down and move elsewhere.
In Johnson County, where the University of Iowa is located, cases have more than doubled since the start of August, to more than 4,000. Over the past two weeks, Iowa City’s metro area added the fourth-most cases per capita in the country. The university has recorded more than 1,400 cases for the semester.
With a population of roughly 75,000, Iowa City relies on the university as an economic engine. The University of Iowa is by far the community’s largest employer, and its approximately 30,000 students are a critical market. Hawkeye football alone brings $120 million a year into the community, said Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District.
When the pandemic first hit in March, the university sent students home and pivoted to remote instruction, like most of the country’s approximately 5,000 colleges and universities. That exodus, heightened by health restrictions, has been an existential challenge for many downtown businesses, Ms. Bird said.
Jim Rinella, who owns The Airliner bar and restaurant, said the 76-year-old landmark across the street from campus “had zero revenue the whole month of April.” May was almost as scant, he said, and in June, he shut down after a couple of employees became infected.
By the time he reopened after July 4, too few students were in town to come close to making up the losses. He and his wife, Sherry, had hoped the campus reopening in August might be a lifeline.
The Rinellas live in Detroit, where they have other businesses, and Mr. Rinella said he was out of town when crowds jammed downtown on the weekend before the Aug. 24 start of classes. He said he immediately called his manager to make sure they were following state and local health rules.
But the photos taken by the local press from outside his establishment and others were damning. In an open letter, the university president lashed out, saying he was “exceedingly disappointed” in the failure of local businesses to keep students masked and socially distanced. Days later, the governor cited high infection rates among young people as she closed bars and restricted restaurants in Johnson County and five other counties with high concentrations of students.
Now The Airliner — where a booth is named for the University of Iowa’s most famous dropout, Tom Brokaw, and a modeling scout is said to have discovered Ashton Kutcher — has to close at 10 p.m. as well as require customers to buy a meal and sit far apart if they want to drink there.
“I’m at a pain point,” Mr. Rinella said. “If my grandfather hadn’t started the place, I’d question whether I want to be in the restaurant business.” A recent lunch hour visit found one customer at the bar drinking a beer.
The rise in local case counts reverberated at the county’s community college, which decided to start its fall semester with continued online instruction. Iowa City’s K-12 schools followed suit, which also meant canceling extracurricular activities, including sports, until students come back to the classroom in person.
“This is one of our last chances for college coaches to see us play or to get recent films sent out to college coaches. For some of us, playing in college is a goal we have been working toward since we were 11 or 12,” Lauren Roman, a 17-year-old high school volleyball player, told the school board last month. She burst into tears as she explained that she has waited since March for college recruiters to see her play. “Some of us really do need that scholarship money.”
“This sucks,” the board vice-president Ruthina Malone, agreed at the same meeting, choking up as she described emails she had received from families of children whose education relies on in-person instruction. But, she told the board, “we do not operate in isolation.” Her husband, she said, is an art teacher who would like nothing more than to teach again in person, and she works at the university.
The pandemic has hurt colleges’ finances in multiple ways, adding pressure on many schools to bring students back to campus. It has caused enrollment declines as students have opted for gap years or chosen to stay closer to home, added substantial costs for safety measures, reduced revenue from student room and board and canceled money-generating athletic events.
Governments have not always stepped into the breach: In Iowa, the state cut $8 million from its higher education appropriation even after the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities, requested an $18 million increase. Over the summer, the University of Iowa announced a salary freeze and other significant cuts. This was before the Big Ten Conference postponed fall competition, erasing more than $60 million from the university’s athletics program.
When the university announced its plans for reopening with a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, it did not mention its finances as a factor, though it froze tuition rather than reduce it, as some universities have done. It also mandated mask wearing inside buildings and said it would test students with symptoms or who had been exposed to the virus.
Still, its decision to hold in-person classes drew criticism from some faculty. “We’re scared for our health and yours,” one group of instructors wrote in an open letter to students in July.
And its decision not to test asymptomatic students unless they had been exposed unnerved some city officials. Dr. Dan Fick, the campus health officer, said the university wanted to avoid a false sense of security.
But Janice Weiner, who represented the City Council in meetings with the business community and campus, questioned the approach. “We have a robust and capable medical community, we have good public health officials, we have everything we need,” she said. “But then the university didn’t require everyone coming back to campus to be tested.”
Iowa City is a blue town in a state with a pro-Trump Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, who has clashed with the state’s cities over masks and Covid policies.
Though the governor in March restricted large gatherings, closed Iowa schools and banned indoor operations of many businesses, she began relaxing those orders in May and has argued that face-mask mandates couldn’t be legally enforced.
Several municipalities have nonetheless passed ordinances requiring face masks, including Johnson County and Iowa City — largely in preparation for the return of students. But because state health rules have become a patchwork, not all returning students come from places where mask wearing is required, said Ms. Weiner. And, she said, the inconsistency offers an excuse to those who don’t want to wear them.
Interviews with students suggested that concern had at least some justification.
“If people get sick, they get sick — it happens,” Mady Hanson, a 21-year-old exercise science major, said last week on campus. She added that she and her family had survived Covid-19 and that she resented the city’s “ridiculous” restrictions.
“We’re all farmers and don’t really care about germs, so if we get it, we get it and we have the immunity to it.”
Both university and city officials said they believe the spike in cases has been a wake-up. “When we look back,” said Dr. Fick, “I think we’ll be proud that when students got the message, a majority stepped up.”
On the City Council, Ms. Weiner was less upbeat.
“There’s not a whole use in placing blame — we have to figure out a way forward,” she said. “But it’s going to take a herculean effort here for our numbers to start to go down.”
The number of jobless people saying that unemployment insurance does not cover basic expenses including food, clothing, housing and transportation nearly doubled after key benefits expired in July.
A new survey from Morning Consult found that 50 percent of unemployed people said their benefits fell short of covering basic expenses, up from 27 percent in July.
The $600 in extra weekly benefits that Congress passed in March expired at the end of July, leaving many with significantly lower payments.
Republicans argued the $600 increase was too high and discouraged people from returning to work. Democrats countered that at a time of record high unemployment and limited job openings, the extra pay was unlikely to prevent jobs from getting filled.
A month later, negotiations between the White House and congressional Democrats remain stalled. Senate Republicans are setting a goal of voting on a more limited package of COVID-19 relief measures next week, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has dismissed the idea of approving a limited bill.
An executive order by President Trump to provide $300 in additional benefits to a more limited pool of recipients has lagged in implementation, with only a handful of states able to start making new payments.
In the meantime, the pandemic continues to stifle the economy.
A CNBC poll found that 14 percent of those surveyed had completely wiped out their emergency savings during the pandemic, and 39 percent were forced to take some sort of emergency measures to shore up their finances.
Among those who took emergency measures, 17 percent tapped into savings, 11 percent borrowed money, 6 percent stopped retirement contributions and 4 percent moved in with a family member.
The administration has already begun to implement some policies along these lines, according to current and former officials as well as experts, particularly with regard to testing.
The approach’s chief proponent is Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist from Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, who joined the White House earlier this month as a pandemic adviser. He has advocated that the United States adopt the model Sweden has used to respond to the virus outbreak, according to these officials, which relies on lifting restrictions so the healthy can build up immunity to the disease rather than limiting social and business interactions to prevent the virus from spreading.
Sweden’s handling of the pandemic has been heavily criticized by public health officials and infectious-disease experts as reckless — the country has among the highest infection and death rates in the world. It also hasn’t escaped the deep economic problems resulting from the pandemic.
But Sweden’s approach has gained support among some conservatives who argue that social distancing restrictions are crushing the economy and infringing on people’s liberties.
That this approach is even being discussed inside the White House is drawing concern from experts inside and outside the government who note that a herd immunity strategy could lead to the country suffering hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lost lives.
“The administration faces some pretty serious hurdles in making this argument. One is a lot of people will die, even if you can protect people in nursing homes,” said Paul Romer, a professor at New York University who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2018. “Once it’s out in the community, we’ve seen over and over again, it ends up spreading everywhere.”
Atlas, who does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, has expanded his influence inside the White House by advocating policies that appeal to Trump’s desire to move past the pandemic and get the economy going, distressing health officials on the White House coronavirus task force and throughout the administration who worry that their advice is being followed less and less.
Atlas declined several interview requests in recent days. After the publication of this story, he released a statement through the White House: “There is no policy of the President or this administration of achieving herd immunity. There never has been any such policy recommended to the President or to anyone else from me.”
White House communications director Alyssa Farah said there is no change in the White House’s approach toward combatting the pandemic.
“President Trump is fully focused on defeating the virus through therapeutics and ultimately a vaccine. There is no discussion about changing our strategy,” she said in a statement. “We have initiated an unprecedented effort under Operation Warp Speed to safely bring a vaccine to market in record time — ending this virus through medicine is our top focus.”
White House officials said Trump has asked questions about herd immunity but has not formally embraced the strategy. The president, however, has made public comments that advocate a similar approach.
“We are aggressively sheltering those at highest risk, especially the elderly, while allowing lower-risk Americans to safely return to work and to school, and we want to see so many of those great states be open,” he said during his address to the Republican National Convention Thursday night. “We want them to be open. They have to be open. They have to get back to work.”
Atlas has fashioned himself as the “anti-Dr. Fauci,” one senior administration official said, referring to Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease official, who has repeatedly been at odds with the president over his public comments about the threat posed by the virus. He has clashed with Fauci as well as Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, over the administration’s pandemic response.
Atlas has argued both internally and in public that an increased case count will move the nation more quickly to herd immunity and won’t lead to more deaths if the vulnerable are protected. But infectious-disease experts strongly dispute that, noting that more than 25,000 people younger than 65 have died of the virus in the United States. In addition, the United States has a higher number of vulnerable people of all ages because of high rates of heart and lung disease and obesity, and millions of vulnerable people live outside nursing homes — many in the same households with children, whom Atlas believes should return to school.
“When younger, healthier people get the disease, they don’t have a problem with the disease. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult for everyone to acknowledge,” Atlas said in an interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade in July. “These people getting the infection is not really a problem and in fact, as we said months ago, when you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you’re prolonging the problem because you’re preventing population immunity. Low-risk groups getting the infection is not a problem.”
Atlas has said that lockdowns and social distancing restrictions during the pandemic have had a health cost as well, noting the problems associated with unemployment and people forgoing health care because they are afraid to visit a doctor.
“From personal communications with neurosurgery colleagues, about half of their patients have not appeared for treatment of disease which, left untreated, risks brain hemorrhage, paralysis or death,” he wrote in The Hill newspaper in May
The White House has left many of the day-to-day decisions regarding the pandemic to governors and local officials, many of whom have disregarded Trump’s advice, making it unclear how many states would embrace the Swedish model, or elements of it, if Trump begins to aggressively push for it to be adopted.
But two senior administration officials and one former official, as well as medical experts, noted that the administration is already taking steps to move the country in this direction.
The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, invoked the Defense Production Act earlier this month to expedite the shipment of tests to nursing homes — but the administration has not significantly ramped up spending on testing elsewhere, despite persistent shortages. Trump and top White House aides, including Atlas, have also repeatedly pushed to reopen schools and lift lockdown orders, despite outbreaks in several schools that attempted to resume in-person classes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also updated its testing guidance last week to say that those who are asymptomatic do not necessarily have to be tested. That prompted an outcry from medical groups, infectious-disease experts and local health officials, who said the change meant that asymptomatic people who had contact with an infected person would not be tested. The CDC estimates that about 40 percent of people infected with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are asymptomatic, and experts said much of the summer surge in infections was due to asymptomatic spread among young, healthy people.
Trump has previously floated “going herd” before being convinced by Fauci and others that it was not a good idea, according to one official.
The discussions come as at least 5.9 million infections have been reported and at least 179,000 have died from the virus this year and as public opinion polls show that Trump’s biggest liability with voters in his contest against Democratic nominee Joe Biden is his handling of the pandemic. The United States leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths, with far more casualties and infections than any other developed nation.
The nations that have most successfully managed the coronavirus outbreak imposed stringent lockdown measures that a vast majority of the country abided by, quickly ramped up testing and contact tracing, and imposed mask mandates.
Atlas meets with Trump almost every day, far more than any other health official, and inside the White House is viewed as aligned with the president and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on how to handle the outbreak, according to three senior administration officials.
In meetings, Atlas has argued that metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago and New Orleans have already reached herd immunity, according to two senior administration officials. But Birx and Fauci have disputed that, arguing that even cities that peaked to potential herd immunity levels experience similar levels of infection if they reopen too quickly, the officials said.
Trump asked Birx in a meeting last month whether New York and New Jersey had reached herd immunity, according to a senior administration official. Birx told the president there was not enough data to support that conclusion.
Atlas has supporters who argue that his presence in the White House is a good thing and that he brings a new perspective.
“Epidemiology is not the only discipline that matters for public policy here. That is a fundamentally wrong way to think about this whole situation,” said Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a think tank that researches market-based solutions to help low-income Americans. “You have to think about what are the costs of lockdowns, what are the trade-offs, and those are fundamentally subjective judgments policymakers have to make.”
It remains unclear how large a percentage of the population must become infected to achieve “herd immunity,” which is when enough people become immune to a disease that it slows its spread, even among those who have not been infected. That can occur either through mass vaccination efforts, or when enough people in the population become infected with coronavirus and develop antibodies that protect them against future infection.
Estimates have ranged from 20 percent to 70 percent for how much of a population would need to be infected. Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, said given the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus, it is likely that about 65 to 70 percent of the population would need to become infected for there to be herd immunity.
With a population of 328 million in the United States, it may require 2.13 million deaths to reach a 65 percent threshold of herd immunity, assuming the virus has a 1 percent fatality rate, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
It also remains unclear whether people who recover from covid-19 have long-term immunity to the virus or can become reinfected, and scientists are still learning who is vulnerable to the disease. From a practical standpoint, it is also nearly impossible to sufficiently isolate people at most risk of dying due to the virus from the younger, healthier population, according to public health experts.
Atlas has argued that the country should only be testing people with symptoms, despite the fact that asymptomatic carriers spread the virus. He has also repeatedly pushed to reopen schools and advocated for college sports to resume. Atlas has said, without evidence, that children do not spread the virus and do not have any real risk from covid-19, arguing that more children die of influenza — an argument he has made in television and radio interviews.
Atlas’s appointment comes after Trump earlier this summer encouraged his White House advisers to find a new doctor who would argue an alternative point of view from Birx and Fauci, whom the president has grown increasingly annoyed with for public comments that he believes contradict his own assertions that the threat of the virus is receding. Advisers sought a doctor with Ivy League or top university credentials who could make the case on television that the virus is a receding threat.
Atlas caught Trump’s attention with a spate of Fox News appearances in recent months, and the president has found a more simpatico figure in the Stanford doctor for his push to reopen the country so he can focus on his reelection. Atlas now often sits in the briefing room with Trump during his coronavirus news conferences, even as other doctors do not. He has given the president somewhat of a medical imprimatur for his statements and regularly helps draft the administration’s coronavirus talking points from his West Wing office as well as the slides that Trump often relies on for his argument of a diminishing threat.
Atlas has also said he is unsure “scientifically” whether masks make sense, despite broad consensus among scientists that they are effective. He has selectively presented research and findings that support his argument for herd immunity and his other ideas, two senior administration officials said.
Fauci and Birx have both said the virus is a threat in every part of the country. They have also put forward policy recommendations that the president views as too draconian, including mask mandates and partial lockdowns in areas experiencing surges of the virus.
Birx has been at odds with Atlas on several occasions, with one disagreement growing so heated at a coronavirus meeting earlier this month that other administration officials grew uncomfortable, according to a senior administration official.
One of the main points of tension between the two is over school reopenings. Atlas has pushed to reopen schools and Birx is more cautious.
“This is really unfortunate to have this fellow Scott Atlas, who was basically recruited to crowd out Tony Fauci and the voice of reason,” said Eric Topol, a cardiologist and head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego. “Not only do we not embrace the science, but we repudiate the science by our president, and that has extended by bringing in another unreliable misinformation vector.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly changed its recommendations, saying people without Covid-19 symptoms should not get tested.
Trump administration officials on Wednesday defended a new recommendation that people without Covid-19 symptoms abstain from testing, even as scientists warned that the policy could hobble an already weak federal response as schools reopen and a potential autumn wave looms.
The day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the revised guidance, there were conflicting reports on who was responsible. Two federal health officials said the shift came as a directive to the Atlanta-based C.D.C. from higher-ups in Washington at the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the administration’s coronavirus testing czar, called it a “C.D.C. action,” written with input from the agency’s director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield. But he acknowledged that the revision came after a vigorous debate among members of the White House coronavirus task force — including its newest member, Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a frequent Fox News guest and a special adviser to President Trump.
“We all signed off on it, the docs, before it ever got to a place where the political leadership would have, you know, even seen it, and this document was approved by the task force by consensus,” Dr. Giroir said. “There was no weight on the scales by the president or the vice president or Secretary Azar,” he added, referring to Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services.
Regardless of who is responsible, the shift is highly significant, running counter to scientific evidence that people without symptoms could be the most prolific spreaders of the coronavirus. And it comes at a very precarious moment. Hundreds of thousands of college and K-12 students are heading back to campus, and broad testing regimens are central to many of their schools’ plans. Businesses are reopening, and scientists inside and outside the administration are growing concerned about political interference in scientific decisions.
Democratic governors who were weighing how to keep the virus contained as their economies and schools come to life said limiting testing for asymptomatic citizens would make the task impossible.
“The only plausible rationale,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York told reporters in a conference call from Albany, N.Y., “is that they want fewer people taking tests, because as the president has said, if we don’t take tests, you won’t know the number of people who are Covid-positive.”
Over the weekend, the Food and Drug Administration, under pressure from Mr. Trump, gave emergency approval to expand the use of antibody-rich blood plasma to treat Covid-19 patients. The move came just days after scientists, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, intervened to stop the practice because of lack of evidence that it worked.
The move echoed a decision by the Food and Drug Administration to grant an emergency use waiver for hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug repeatedly sold by Mr. Trump as a treatment for Covid-19. The agency revoked the waiver in June, when clinical trials suggested the drug’s risks outweighed any possible benefits.
The testing shift, experts say, was a far more puzzling reversal. Dr. Giroir said the move was “discussed extensively by” members of the White House coronavirus task force, and he named Dr. Redfield, Dr. Atlas, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of food and drugs. Notably, he did not name Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. But he said Dr. Fauci was among those who had “signed off.”
In a brief interview, Dr. Fauci said he had seen an early iteration of the guidelines and did not object. But the final debate over the revisions took place at a task force meeting on Thursday, when Dr. Fauci was having surgery under general anesthesia to remove a polyp on his vocal cord. In retrospect, he said, he now had “some concerns” about advising people against getting tested, because the virus could be spread through asymptomatic contact.
“My concern is that it will be misinterpreted,” Dr. Fauci said.
The newest version of the C.D.C. guidelines, posted on Monday, amended the agency’s guidance to say that people who had been in close contact with an infected individual — typically defined as being within six feet of a person with the coronavirus and for at least 15 minutes — “do not necessarily need a test” if they do not have symptoms.
Exceptions might be made for “vulnerable” individuals, the agency noted, or if health care providers or state or local public health officials recommended testing.
Dr. Giroir said the new recommendation matched existing guidance for hospital workers and others in frontline jobs who have “close exposures” to people infected with the coronavirus. Such workers are advised to take proper precautions, like wearing masks, socially distancing, washing their hands frequently and monitoring themselves for symptoms.
He argued that testing those exposed to the virus was of little utility, because tests capture only a single point in time, and that the results could give people a false sense of security.
“A negative test on Day 2 doesn’t mean you’re negative. So what is the value of that?” Dr. Giroir asked, adding, “It doesn’t mean on Day 4 you can go out and visit Grandma or on Day 6 go out without a mask on in school.”
The guidelines come amid growing concern that the C.D.C., the agency charged with tracking and fighting outbreaks of infectious disease, is being sidelined by its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House. Under ordinary circumstances, administering public health advice to the nation would fall squarely within the C.D.C.’s portfolio.
Experts have called the revisions alarming and dangerous, noting that the United States needs more testing, not less. And they have expressed deep concern that the C.D.C. is posting guidelines that its own officials did not author. A former C.D.C. director, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, railed against the move on Twitter on Wednesday:
Later, in an interview, Dr. Frieden elaborated. He noted that the C.D.C. had recently dropped its recommendation that people quarantine for 14 days after traveling from an area with a high number of cases to one where the virus was less prevalent. And he reiterated that testing the contacts of those infected was an important means of curbing the spread of the virus.
“We don’t know the best protocol for testing of contacts: Should you test all contacts? That’s the kind of study that frankly needs to get done,” Dr. Frieden said. But absent the answer to that question, he added, “I certainly wouldn’t say, ‘Don’t test contacts.’”
Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and two governors — Mr. Cuomo and Gavin Newsom of California — were outraged by the changes. Mr. Newsom said California would not follow the new guidelines, and Mr. Cuomo blamed Mr. Trump.
Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, a Democrat and the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also chimed in on Twitter: “The Trump Admin has a lot of explaining to do. #COVID19 testing is essential to stopping the spread of the pandemic. I’m concerned that CDC is once again caving to political pressure. This simply cannot stand.”
Mr. Trump has suggested that the nation should do less testing, arguing that administering more tests was driving up case numbers and making the United States look bad. But experts say the true measure of the pandemic is not case numbers but test positivity rates — the percentage of tests coming back positive.
As Dr. Giroir denied that politics was involved, he encouraged the continued testing of asymptomatic people for surveillance purposes — to determine the prevalence of the virus in a given community — and said such “baseline surveillance testing” would still be appropriate in schools and on college campuses.
“We’re trying to do appropriate testing, not less testing,” he said.
Still, the revisions left many public health officials scratching their heads. They might have made sense when the United States was experiencing a shortage of tests, some experts said, but that no longer appears to be the case. Dr. Frieden, however, said it was possible the administration was trying to conserve testing in case of another surge.
“The problem is we have too many cases, so there is basically no way to keep up the testing if you have a huge outbreak,” he said.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she was “not as up in arms about the content of the guidelines” as she was about the idea that the C.D.C.’s own experts did not write them — and that C.D.C. officials were referring all questions about them to the health department in Washington.
“These guidelines are clearly controversial, and many are calling on C.D.C. to explain its rationale for them, but C.D.C. is unable to comment,” she said in an email. “This is really dangerous precedent, and I fear it will erode public trust in C.D.C.”
To explain why the coronavirus pandemic is much worse in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, commentators have blamed the federal government’s mismanaged response and the lack of leadership from the Trump White House.
All valid explanations, but there’s another reason, much older, for the failed response: our approach to fighting infectious disease, inherited from the 19th century, has become overly focused on keeping disease out of the country through border controls.
As a professor of medical sociology, I’ve studied the response to infectious disease and public health policy. In my new book, “Diseased States,” I examine how the early experience of outbreaks in Britain and the United States shaped their current disease control systems. I believe that America’s preoccupation with border controls has hurt our nation’s ability to manage the devastation produced by a domestically occurring outbreak of disease.
Though outbreaks of yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera occurred throughout the 19th century, the federal government didn’t take the fight against infectious disease seriously until the yellow fever outbreak of 1878. During that same year, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the National Quarantine Act, the first federal disease control legislation.
By the early 20th century, a distinctly American approach to disease control had evolved: “New Public Health.” It was markedly different from the older European concept of public health, which emphasized sanitation and social conditions. Instead, U.S. health officials were fascinated by the newly popular “germ theory,” which theorized that microorganisms, too small to be seen by the naked eye, caused disease. The U.S. became focused on isolating the infectious. The typhoid carrier Mary Mallon, known as “Typhoid Mary,” was isolated on New York’s Brother Island for 23 years of her life.
Originally, the military managed disease control. After the yellow fever outbreak, the U.S. Marine Hospital Service (MHS) was charged with operating maritime quarantine stations countrywide. In 1912, the MHS became the U.S. Public Health Service; to this day, that includes the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps led by the surgeon general. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started as a military organization during World War II, as the Malaria Control in War Areas program. Connecting the military to disease control promoted the notion that an attack of infectious disease was like an invasion of a foreign enemy.
Germ theory and military management put the U.S. system of disease control down a path in which it prioritized border controls and quarantine throughout the 20th century. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, New York City held all incoming ships at quarantine stations and forcibly removed sick passengers into isolation to a local hospital. Other states followed suit. In Minnesota, the city of Minneapolis isolated all flu patients in a special ward of the city hospital and then denied them visitors. During the 1980s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied HIV-positive persons from entering the country and tested over three million potential immigrants for HIV.
Defending the nation from the external threat of disease generally meant stopping the potentially infectious from ever entering the country and isolating those who were able to gain entry.
His actions were nothing new. In 2014, during the Ebola outbreak, California, New York and New Jersey created laws to forcibly quarantine health care workers returning from west Africa. New Jersey put this into practice when it isolated U.S. nurse Kaci Hickox after she returned from Sierra Leone, where she was treating Ebola patients.
In 2007, responding to pandemic influenza, the Department of Homeland Security and the CDC developed a “do not board” list to stop potentially infected people from traveling to the U.S.
When such actions stop outbreaks from occurring, they are obviously sound public policy. But when a global outbreak is so large that it’s impossible to keep out, then border controls and quarantine are no longer useful.
This is what has happened with the coronavirus. With today’s globalization, international travel, and an increasing number of pandemics, attempting to keep infectious disease from ever entering the country looks more and more like a futile effort.
Moreover, the U.S. preoccupation with border controls means we did not invest as much as we should have in limiting the internal spread of COVID-19. Unlike countries that mounted an effective response, the U.S. has lagged behind in testing, contact tracing, and the development of a robust health care system able to handle a surge of infected patients. The longstanding focus on stopping an outbreak from ever occurring left us more vulnerable when it inevitably did.
For decades, the U.S. has been underfunding public health. When “swine flu” struck the country in 2009, the CDC said 159 million doses of flu shots were needed to cover “high risk” groups, particularly health care workers and pregnant women. We only produced 32 million doses. And in a pronouncement that now looks prescient, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report said if the swine flu outbreak had been any worse, U.S. health departments would have been overwhelmed. By the time Ebola appeared in 2014, the situation was no better. Once again, multiple government reports slammed our response to the outbreak.
Many causes exist for the U.S.‘s failed response to this crisis. But part of the problem lies with our past battles with disease. By emphasizing border controls and quarantine, the U.S. has disregarded more practical strategies of disease control. We can’t change the past, but by learning from it, we can develop more effective ways of dealing with future outbreaks.