WASHINGTON — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked senators Wednesday for billions of dollars more for COVID-19 vaccine distribution as he addressed allegations of political interference and disclosed that the Trump administration transferred $300 million from the CDC for a public relations campaign.
During a Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, CDC Director Robert Redfield told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the subcommittee's ranking member, that the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of Management and Budget directed the CDC to transfer $300 million to the HHS public affairs office.
Of that amount, $250 million is reportedly being used for a public relations campaign "to defeat despair and inspire hope" in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans. Lawmakers view the ads as an attempt to cast the Trump administration's response to COVID-19 in a positive light. Redfield said that since the transfer was made, the CDC hasn't been involved in the campaign and hasn't been asked to weigh in with scientific expertise.
The campaign prompted questions from subcommittee members about whether the administration is spending money in accordance with laws enacted by Congress — particularly if the money would have otherwise been spent more directly on the health response.
"I would hope this committee would ask some very tough questions about what's going on here, because that's a lot of money for a campaign that we ought to be spending to address this pandemic," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
The disclosure about the transfer came as Redfield told the committee that about $6 billion more is needed for the agency to help states and cities develop plans to distribute anticipated COVID-19 vaccines.
Earlier in the day, the CDC issued a blueprint for states to follow to develop vaccine distribution plans, which they must submit by Oct. 16.
Redfield said that while a vaccine might be authorized for limited populations such as health care workers by November or December, it will likely be mid-2021 before there are enough doses for the general population.
Redfield said the agency has experience in distribution and monitoring vaccines for safety but the COVID-19 vaccine distribution requires "substantial" resources and a sense of urgency.
"The time is now for us to be able to get those resources out to the states, and we currently don't have those resources," he said.
Redfield's call comes as Congress considers another round of COVID-19 spending to deal with the stresses to the health care system and the economic hardships imposed by the pandemic.
"If you have the vaccine and don't have either the plan or the resources to distribute it, that's a huge failure on the part of the Congress to provide the resources that we know are going to be necessary," said subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Redfield stressed that while a vaccine would likely save lives if proven safe and effective, a greater use of face masks could be even more critical in bringing the U.S. coronavirus infection rate under control.
"I might even go so far to say that this face mask is even more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine," he said, noting that a vaccine, if approved, might be only around 70% effective.
"If I don't get an immune response, the vaccine isn't going to protect me. This face mask will," he said.
Federal officials recently told states to be ready for the possibility of a vaccine being ready by Nov. 1, shortly before the Nov. 3 election. Redfield said the decision to tell states to prepare was made by career staff without regard to the proximity of Election Day.
"There was no political interest in it whatsoever," Redfield said, adding that he wanted to make sure that governors have time to help the distributor that the administration tasked for the job, McKesson Corp., cut through red tape in each state.
Redfield said his concern "was that the worst thing that could happen is that we have vaccine to deliver and we're still not ready to distribute." He added that, in hindsight, "someone maybe should have thought a little more political, but there was no political intention whatsoever."
Redfield responded to questions from Murray about reports that Michael Caputo, the HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, required scientific CDC reports to be reviewed by his office before publication and that his staff has tried to make the findings reflect more favorably on the Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shortly after the hearing ended, HHS announced that Caputo, who was responsible for the $250 million advertising campaign funded with the transferred CDC money, would be taking 60 days of medical leave and that another aide at the center of the scandal, Paul Alexander, would be leaving the department.
Redfield said the scientific integrity of the agency's flagship reports, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, had not been compromised.
"At no time has the scientific integrity of the MMWR been compromised. And I can say that under my watch it will not be compromised," Redfield told Murray.
He also addressed comments that Caputo reportedly made on a Facebook video on Sunday, making claims of "sedition" by CDC scientists trying to undermine President Donald Trump.
He emphatically called the assertions "not true."
"The CDC is made up of thousands of dedicated men and women, highly competent. It is the premier public health agency in the world," he said. "It deeply saddened me that those false accusations were made."