Op-ed: There’s been a lack of leadership surrounding COVID

July 30, 2020 | SPH in the News

In an op-ed for The Hill, CUNY SPH Distinguished Scholar Lyndon Haviland underscores the health implications of the Trump administration’s dysfunctional response to the COVID-19 crisis in the United States.

There’s been a lack of leadership surrounding COVID

By Lyndon Haviland, Opinion Contributor

Lyndon Haviland

Distinguished Scholar Lyndon Haviland

In times of crisis, we look to administration officials to lead. We may not always agree with the decisions they make, but we assume their actions will be guided by what’s best for the American people. In the case of COVID-19, these officials are entrusted to provide accurate, reliable information we can use to help us stay safe.

We expect them to be transparent and straightforward in their communications, to lead by example, work constructively with our nation’s top scientific minds to address the problem, and design a national plan to try and defeat it.

None of this is happening. The latest example of the administration’s dysfunctional response to COVID-19 was a recent tweet by President Trump promoting a video replete with misinformation regarding the efficacy of certain prevention measures and possible treatment options. It was so egregious Twitter took it down, as did Facebook and YouTube (after more than 14 million views).

Two weeks ago, the administration ordered hospitals to circumvent the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and report COVID-19 case information directly to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The move would have sidelined the CDC from conducting data-driven analysis about the outbreak that often contradicted the optimistic view the White House sought to project.

The health implications of these actions cannot be understated. The presidential promotion of essentially inaccurate theories about the pandemic is beyond irresponsible.

In the case of the CDC, since its founding, the agency has been a global center for pandemic preparedness and the backbone of the scientific community. It provides researchers evidence-based guidance and real-time statistics that should guide our pandemic response.

Yet soon after HHS’s order, the CDC began deleting COVID-19 related health information from its website. Data regarding intensive care bed occupancy and personal protective equipment availability were suddenly no longer available. It suggested an attempt by the administration to assert authority over the collection, interpretation, and presentation of COVID-19 health data.

It’s no secret that the CDC and the White House have been at odds regarding the U.S. response to the pandemic. The White House even blocked the CDC’s re-opening plan, calling it “overly prescriptive,” opting instead to have governors call their “own shots.” The wisdom of that decision is being debated, as states that opened too soon are seeing an overwhelming spike of new COVID-19 cases.

The administration later announced the CDC would re-publish the data that had been removed. “HHS is committed to being transparent with the American public about the information it is collecting on the coronavirus,” Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Michael Caputo said. “Therefore, HHS has directed CDC to re-establish the coronavirus dashboards it withdrew from the public … .”

Some might argue HHS’ reversal was simply a case of cross-agency confusion about how hospital data should be managed. But the pattern of contradictions and serial miscommunication by the administration since the pandemic began suggests otherwise. For months President Trump resisted the call to lead by example and wear a mask in public, yet the other week he tweeted a photo of himself in one and called the act “patriotic.”

There have been conflicting positions on testing, treatments, coronavirus insurance coverage, and appropriate gathering sizes, not to mention President Trump’s reversal shortly after declaring he would be singularly responsible for re-opening the economy.

Despite HHS’s turnabout, what should concern us all is that the administration took action to deny CDC and public access to health data that could potentially help save human lives. The fact HHS even considered it is unconscionable. The fact HHS ordered it is an unsettling breach of public trust. The CDC must perform the proper checks and balances to convey public confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the information we receive. That can only happen if CDC scientists are part of the solution.

When administration officials put politics ahead of public health, the American people lose. Now is not the time to deceive the public or sideline the expertise of those we need most to help us through this crisis. “It’s like telling a soldier in the middle of a battle ‘we want you to fight differently than we trained you,'” said American Public Health Association Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin in response to HHS’s action to by-pass the CDC. “[It] doesn’t work.”

We need leadership, and we need it fast.

Lyndon Haviland DrPh, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Health Policy & Public Health.