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Governor Cuomo slams new CDC guidance against testing asymptomatic people

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has slammed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over a change to guidance in coronavirus testing, saying it is politically motivated and vowing that New York will not follow the new recommendation.

The CDC on Monday changed its guidelines, which now say that if you were exposed but don’t have symptoms, ‘you do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual’ or a doctor advises it.

Previously, the agency had recommended getting tested after any close contact with someone who was confirmed infected with COVID-19.

Cuomo told reporters on a call on Wednesday: ‘The only plausible rationale is they want fewer people taking tests because, as the president has said, if we don’t take tests you won’t know that people are COVID-positive and the number of COVID-positive people will come down.’

‘We’re not going to follow the CDC guidance,’ Cuomo added. ‘I consider it political propaganda.’

‘I would caution private companies against following the CDC guidance. I think it is wholly indefensible on its face. I think it is inherently self-contradictory,’ Cuomo said. ‘It is the exact opposite of what the CDC has been saying. So either the CDC is schizophrenic or they are admitting error in their first position or this is just political dictations.’ 

‘We need public health people who do public health and not politics, and we´re going to disregard the CDC guidance totally,’ he told MSNBC in a phone interview later in the day. 

Cuomo was not the only Democratic politician to cry foul on the new guidelines.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats on two House committees will investigate the CDC’s decision to change coronavirus testing guidelines. 

‘This all has been politicized and yes we will be investigating,’ Pelosi told reporters on a Democratic National Committee Zoom call Wednesday. ‘The Energy and Commerce Committee is already looking into this and our Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, under Mr. Clyburn’s leadership, will be looking into it.’ 

The CDC previously had advised local health departments to test people who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. But on Monday a CDC testing overview page was changed to say that testing is no longer recommended for symptom-less people who were in close contact situations.

There was a caveat, however. Testing may be recommended for those with health problems that make them more likely to suffer severe illness from an infection, or if their doctor or local state officials advise they get tested.

CDC officials referred all questions to the agency’s parent organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. That suggests that HHS ordered the change, not CDC, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University public health researcher.

After Twitter lit up with head-scratching and alarm about the change, HHS officials sent an email Wednesday saying the guidance was revised ‘to reflect current evidence and the best public health interventions,’ but did not detail what the new evidence was.

The officials also said they wanted to emphasize that people should follow measures designed to help stop spread of the virus, like wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet apart from others and washing hands.

The decision came out of meetings of a White House coronavirus task force, the email said.

In a call with reporters later Wednesday, Dr. Brett Giroir, the HHS assistant secretary for health, said the guidance language came from the CDC. But he also said many people were involved in ‘lots of editing, lots of input.’ He said federal officials achieved consensus but it was difficult to attribute the final language to any one source.

‘Its kind of hard to know how much was written by what person,’ Giroir said.

Across the country, public health experts called the change bizarre. They noted that testing contacts of infected people is a core element of public health efforts to keep outbreaks in check, and that a large percentage of infected people – the CDC has said as many as 40% – exhibit no symptoms.

‘I was taken aback and didn´t know that it was under consideration,’ said John Auerbach, president of Trust for America´s Health, a nonprofit that works to improve U.S. preparedness against disease. ‘The recommendation not to test asymptomatic people who likely have been exposed is not in accord with the science.’

Ultimately, restricting testing could be self-defeating, because it could skew the numbers and create a perception that rates of infection are higher. Testing people who appear to be healthy would tend to lower the overall rate of positive results, while narrowing testing to people who are sick would raise the overall positive rate, Auerbach said.

Why HHS would order such a change quickly became a matter of speculation. Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious diseases specialist at Emory University, suggested in a tweet that there are two possible explanations.

One is that it may be driven by testing supply issues that in many parts of the country have caused widely reported delays in results of a week or more, he suggested.

In the HHS email, agency officials said that is not the reason, and argued that testing capacity is plentiful.

But Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner for the city of Columbus, Ohio, said testing in her city last month had to be curtailed because of a shortage of reagents used in lab procedures.

She agreed with the idea that whatever the federal guidance is, testing decisions ultimately must be made at the local level. But she she was surprised by the change in federal guidance.

‘I feel so strongly that we should test asymptomatic people when the capacity allows you to,’ she said. ‘And when we were testing asymptomatic people here in Columbus, we were picking up a large number of individuals.’

Another possible explanation for the change is that President Donald Trump simply wants to see case counts drop, and discouraging more people from getting tested is one way to do it, del Rio said in his tweet.

Giroir said the change in guidance was passed by consensus by the White House task force without input from Trump or Vice President Mike Pence. ‘There was no weight on the scales by the president or the vice president’ or HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Giroir said.

Dr. Tom Frieden, who was head of the CDC during the Obama administration, said the move follows another recent change: to no longer recommend quarantine for travelers coming from areas where infections are more common.

‘Both changes are highly problematic’ and need to be better explained, said Frieden, who now is president of Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit program that works to prevent epidemics.

Frieden said he, too, believes HHS forced CDC to post the changes. He called it ‘a sad day’ because ‘CDC is being told what to write on their website.’ 

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