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Pallone and DeGette to Azar: Either Stand Up to Protect Public Health or Step Aside

Jul 20, 2020
Press Release
“Your lack of leadership demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific expertise and an abdication of your responsibilities, jeopardizing the health and safety of all Americans by undermining our nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette (D-CO) sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar today expressing growing concerns regarding the Trump Administration’s continued efforts to sideline and scapegoat public health officials who should be leading our nation’s response to the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

“As the top health official in the country, you have a duty to protect the health and well-being of all Americans,” Pallone and DeGette wrote to Azar.  “Instead, you have spent the last six months promoting politics over science in our nation’s COVID-19 pandemic response.  It is time for you to either stand up to protect public health or step aside as the nation’s top health official.”

Last month, Pallone and DeGette wrote to Azar expressing alarm at the repudiation of the scientific expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and requested information to ensure scientific and public health expertise remained at the forefront of the nation’s COVID-19 response.  To date, Azar has not responded.

“Throughout the national public health emergency, you have failed to respond to the Administration’s continued escalation of disputes with CDC—an operating division under your authority—including by allowing Trump Administration officials to repeatedly undermine key CDC public health guidance,” Pallone and DeGette continued.

In their letter, the Committee leaders point to several examples where Azar failed to defend CDC against attacks by the Trump Administration, including:

  • President Trump publicly condemned CDC’s COVID-19 guidance for schools as “impractical” and “expensive;”
  • Vice President Pence further dismissed CDC’s guidance for schools to reopen, saying it should not be a “barrier” to reopening schools;
  • White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany joined in to undermine CDC, stating during a press conference that “science should not stand in the way” of reopening schools;
  • HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo reportedly agreed with a senior HHS adviser who accused CDC of “undermining the President” by releasing a scientific report on COVID-19’s potential risks to pregnant women; and
  • Caputo again criticized CDC, stating that it “just cannot keep up with this pandemic.”

“While attacks against CDC are concerning on their own, the Trump Administration’s attacks extend beyond CDC to individual public health leaders as well,” Pallone and DeGette wrote.  “Alarmingly, you have done nothing to protect your own staff when the health of the nation depends on their expertise now more than ever.  Instead, you have allowed President Trump and other Administration officials to perpetually discredit HHS scientists.”

The Committee leaders go on to describe their concern with the Trump Administration’s efforts to criticize and scapegoat public health civil servants, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as political cover for its own botched pandemic response.

“These examples are merely the latest in a series of instances where you have remained silent as the Trump Administration has launched unfounded attacks on the scientific expertise of HHS,” Pallone and DeGette concluded.  “Your lack of leadership demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific expertise and an abdication of your responsibilities, jeopardizing the health and safety of all Americans by undermining our nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The nation, your department, and its public health experts need the leadership you swore to provide as Secretary of HHS.  The time is past due to uphold your commitment to this oath.” 

To read the full letter, click HERE.  

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