Analysis of Previous Epidemics Finds Unprecedented Ratio of Presidential to CDC Briefings

Published May 19, 2020

WASHINGTON (May 19, 2020)—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has had a diminished role communicating with the public about the novel coronavirus pandemic compared to the role the agency played during previous epidemics, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysis released today.

The analysis quantifies and compares to past administrations, the current administration’s practice of prioritizing presidential press events over CDC press briefings. During the first 13 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump spoke three times for every CDC press conference. During the last pandemic, which occurred in 2009 from the H1N1 flu, the president – Barack Obama at the time – spoke once for every ten CDC press conferences held during that same time period. CDC officials held 32 press conferences on H1N1 during the first 13 weeks of the pandemic compared to 19 the agency held on COVID-19 between January 21 and April 21.

Meanwhile, during the start of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, the CDC held nearly three press briefings for every time the president took the podium. Only CDC briefings and no presidential press conferences were held during the first 13 weeks of the Zika epidemic in 2016 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic (SARS) in 2003.

Below is the data on press events held during the first 13 weeks of epidemics that have occurred over the past two decades:

  • 2020 COVID-19 pandemic: the president gave 50 press events; the CDC held 19.
  • 2016 Zika epidemic: the president did not hold a press event; the CDC held seven.
  • 2014 Ebola epidemic: the president held four press events; the CDC held 11.
  • 2009 H1N1 pandemic: the president held three press events; the CDC held 32.
  • 2003 SARS epidemic: the president did not hold a press event; the CDC held 18.

As COVID-19 cases continue to escalate, press briefings from the CDC have fallen off entirely. The agency has not held a single press conference in the past two months. The forums have been entirely displaced by briefings where, though CDC scientists are sometimes present and able to make brief remarks, political leaders, including the president, have often delivered confusing, misleading or inaccurate information.

“When previous presidents were challenged with epidemic disease, they put the experts out front, and let CDC do its job of informing the public,” said Anita Desikan, a researcher with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “The current administration has broken with that precedent. The scientists have been sidelined and political officials have put themselves in between the facts and the public. We’re getting less reliable information as the number of cases continues to climb. The contrast with past administrations is stark—and it’s putting the public at greater risk.”

Over the past two months, numerous reports have surfaced that the White House is interfering with CDC experts. Since February 27, all federal scientist communications have been required to go through a White House clearance check, and White House officials have blocked CDC reports and recommendations from being released to the public. Meanwhile, President Trump has often shared inaccurate information during the press briefings.

“This administration has a pattern of interfering with science and pushing experts out of the process,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy. “The stakes of this political manipulation have never been clearer than they are now, with hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 cases, tens of thousands of deaths, and widespread confusion about what the public needs to do to stay safe.”

UCS experts urge the administration to provide unfettered access to scientists and make sure CDC public communications are frequent, accurate and clear.