White House officials are advising Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to promote messages that prioritize political positions over scientific findings, an attempt to bolster Donald Trump’s misleading claims about the coronavirus. The pressure is apparently coming from Paul Alexander, a Trump appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services who, in emails reported by Politico, has repeatedly tried to edit Fauci’s planned responses to outlets including Bloomberg News, BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and the science journal Cell. Just this week, Alexander reportedly sent a message to Fauci’s press team urging him not to promote mask-wearing by children in an MSNBC interview.
“Can you ensure Dr. Fauci indicates masks are for the teachers in schools. Not for children,” Alexander wrote. “There is no data, none, zero, across the entire world, that shows children especially young children, spread this virus to other children, or to adults or to their teachers. None. And if it did occur, the risk is essentially zero,” he said, adding—without evidence—that children “take influenza home but do not take COVID home.” The advice prompted long email threads between Alexander and some of Fauci’s aides pushing back against the misleading claims. Alexander is a senior adviser to Michael Caputo, an ally of the president who currently oversees HHS’s media strategy and who said in a statement that he “hired Dr. Alexander for his expertise and not to simply resonate others’ opinions.”
While Alexander’s messages “are couched as scientific arguments,” Politico notes, “they often contradict mainstream science” while amplifying controversial positions the president has taken on topics such as school reopening and the risk coronavirus poses to children. On August 27, Alexander objected to a press-office summary of what Fauci was expected to tell a Bloomberg reporter. “I continue to have an issue with kids getting tested and repeatedly and even university students in a widespread manner…and I disagree with Dr. Fauci on this. Vehemently,” Alexander wrote in an email.
Fauci told Politico he had not seen the emails, nor had his staff advised him to minimize the risk coronavirus poses to kids or the need for mask-wearing. “No one tells me what I can say and cannot say,” Fauci said. “I speak on scientific evidence,” a point he reiterated in a pair of interviews on Friday. Asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer whether the public should listen to Fauci or Trump—who on Thursday claimed “we’re rounding the corner” of the pandemic—Fauci remarked, “You don’t have to listen to any individual” if you “look at the data. The data speak for themselves,” he said. “We’re still getting up to 40,000 new infections a day and 1,000 deaths. That is what you look at. Look at the science, the evidence and the data and you can make a pretty easy conclusion.”
Fauci also cited the data to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell when she asked about the administration’s contradictory messages, with Fauci telling Americans “to hunker down and get through this fall and winter”—when the pandemic is likely to worsen again—the same day that Trump suggested the worst is past. “I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with that,” Fauci said of the president’s comments, noting the “disturbing” statistics and increased test positivity in some parts of the country that come as people begin to move indoors due to colder weather.
“That’s not good for a respiratory-borne virus. You don’t want to start off already with a baseline that’s so high,” Fauci said. The country needs to get the levels down, he warned, “so that when you go into a more precarious situation, like the fall and the winter, you won’t have a situation where you really are at a disadvantage right from the very beginning.”
“We are still in the middle of this,” he told Blitzer.
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