Pressure is mounting on the leaders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to speak publicly against the White House’s manhandling of C.D.C. research and public health decisions, with demoralized career scientists talking of quitting if President Trump wins re-election.
The situation came to a boiling point this week when William H. Foege, a giant in public health who led the C.D.C. under Democratic and Republican presidents, called for its current director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, to “stand up to a bully” — he meant Mr. Trump — even at the risk of being fired.
“Silence becomes complicity,” he said in an interview, after a private letter he wrote to Dr. Redfield leaked to the news media.
Dr. Redfield’s recent memo clearing Vice President Mike Pence to participate in the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday, even as the White House became a coronavirus hot spot, infuriated health experts. Nearly a dozen current and former C.D.C. officials called the letter highly inappropriate.
And Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate health committee, said she told Dr. Redfield in a private telephone conversation last month that he had to take a stand.
“What I said to him was that my concern was about the agency’s credibility today — and the agency’s credibility that we need as a country in the future,” Ms. Murray said in an interview. “This isn’t just about right now. If we lose all the really good scientists there, if people don’t believe the C.D.C. when they put out guidance, what happens in the next flu outbreak? What happens in the next public health crisis?”
C.D.C. scientists know that their work will invariably collide with politics, but they have never seen anything quite like what is happening under Mr. Trump.
The White House successfully pressured the agency to revise guidelines on matters like school reopenings, church gatherings and whether cruise ships can sail. The C.D.C. was forced, over the objections of its own scientists, to post guidelines that suggested asymptomatic people should not be tested. (That was ultimately reversed.) And the White House thwarted a C.D.C. plan to require individuals to wear masks on all U.S. commercial transportation.
“What has happened at C.D.C. has been horrifying to see,” said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who pioneered public health research into gun violence at the C.D.C. but was pushed out after Republicans in Congress effectively cut off funding for his work. “It’s been terribly demoralizing to people who have been working 16 and 17 hour days for weeks or months at a time while taking on Covid-19.”
Dr. Redfield declined to comment.
Current C.D.C. employees contacted would not speak on the record for fear of reprisal, but the sense of despair is clear. Many view public health as a calling, and remain at the agency knowing that they could earn much higher salaries working in industry.
Most current and former C.D.C. officials acknowledge that Dr. Redfield is in a terrible position, working for a president who regards the agency’s scientists as members of a so-called deep state out to get him. Unlike Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, he is a political appointee and lacks Civil Service protections. And unlike the F.D.A. commissioner, he cannot turn to a powerful industry constituency like pharmaceuticals to back him up.
Some say it would be unwise for him to step down, for fear of his successor.
“What happens if 50 of the top scientists at C.D.C. say, ‘We’ve had it, we’re leaving?’ Does that leave the country better off or worse off?” asked Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, who served as the C.D.C. director under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and regularly met Dr. Redfield for lunch before the pandemic. “I suspect that Dr. Redfield is asking himself the same question.”