The White House is Overruling Experts, Putting Churchgoers at Risk

Houses of worship are vital places we lean on for strength, we shouldn’t turn them into hotspots for coronavirus

Andy Slavitt
Medium Coronavirus Blog


Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

With 102,000 Covid-19 deaths, we are busy creating the conditions for tomorrow’s outbreaks. There are many things we should feel optimistic about in our fight against Covid-19. Science, more testing, masks and other interventions give us reason to believe we will be able to live alongside the virus while we try to cure it or prevent it.

And we are learning how Covid spreads. In the past week or so alone, we’ve learned:

  • That superspreaders (5–10% of infected) drive 80% of infections
  • That superspreader events are significant drivers (large crowds, bars, etc.)
  • That pre-existing conditions are especially dangerous — new evidence shows that 10% of Americans w diabetes who are hospitalized for Covid-19 die (there are 30 million Americans with diabetes)
  • 5% of middle aged people with Covid-19 are hospitalized
  • Choirs and singing, close quarters, and poorly circulating air all contribute to infection

The CDC whose job is to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, for all of those reasons, advised caution — no singing in houses of worship, no shared cups. But the White House protested.

This wasn’t a tough call for public health. Inviting older people and families in large numbers and close quarters to pray and sing together is a bad idea. The CDC recognizes this. As I hope many religious leaders will too.

We. Know. This. We’re not guessing.

But the White House overruled the CDC and made them issue new guidelines — removing advice against things that are obvious hazards like sharing cups and choirs. Instead the CDC was forced to add language about First Amendment Rights. I don’t really care what the CDC has to say about First Amendment rights. I care more about what they think about science.

I ran a federal agency under a different president. Occasionally you get comments from the White House on your documents. As scientists, these are the kind of comments you don’t accept.

Here’s how to handle it. “Mr. President, you are of course free to say whatever you like. But my agency is responsible for reducing the spread of the virus. This language is likely to increase the spread.” No prior CDC head that I know of would have put their name on this. It’s hard to imagine a prior president to do this. Even if that president wanted to issue that opinion and be dismissive of the CDC as he had been doing.

We now have scientists advising on Constitutional theory. Since the Justice Department is suing to eliminate health coverage, maybe this is fitting.

I am not indifferent to the importance of faith to many people — particularly in times of crisis. United States of Care did some research this week into the values guiding people through the pandemic crisis. And faith is important to many people across the board. But if places of worship become prominent hot spots they will have let their worshipers down. They can find ways to do most of what they do safely or remotely. Except maybe pass a collection plate. But I think there’s technology for that too!

What do we owe religions? Not just freedom of expression but our best scientific advice. We certainly don’t need to make people victims of a culture war that no one wants to fight.

Church isn’t the only potential new hot spot. Large conventions are too. Like the Republican National Convention being planned in North Carolina.

This isn’t about politics. Trump would like to host a convention in August in North Carolina and the Health Secretary who is very bipartisan, a great leader and a great clinician, Secretary Mandy Cohen, would like it to happen but wants a plan to do it safely.

Full disclosure, Secretary Cohen was my Chief of Staff at CMS. She was the person you want to work with — smarter than me, willing to question everything, never compromising her integrity, and fearless. She’s right and the party should listen. We don’t need a superspreader event.

No one needs thousands of people descending on their city without masks or distancing and then traveling back to literally every state in the country. Secretary Cohen doesn’t want to be responsible for that and she assumes the party wouldn’t either.

Las Vegas casinos open in less than a week. With precautions. Las Vegas is in a tough spot. Their entire economy is centered around the perfect conditions for a hot spot — closed rooms, conventions, long time periods, crowds. But if people fly to Vegas from all over the country and spend three days, what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas.

What we know about super spreaders is to avoid getting highly infectious people around a lot of people. Without universal testing and contact tracing — we really are praying and gambling. Not to mention flying back to our families.

Nate Silver talks here about how a single superspreader can be a major factor leading to an outbreak. Fascinating.

Opening around the country can be best done by avoiding these big events, as our #OpenSafely plan says.

We miss our big communal activities — church, conventions, sports, Broadway shows. I have been called by and spoke with the decision makers from each of these areas. A major producer said to me today that they would not open their shows until next year and only if the science allowed. Undoubtedly risking everything he’s worked for but unwilling to risk us.

Public action and peaceful protests are a part of who we are. I live in the Minneapolis area. There has rarely been a time when there is more to protest. People risked their lives to vote in Wisconsin and some are paying a heavy price. Some are taking the same risk for justice.

No question the virus has disrupted important things in life. But we need patience and to make adjustments. And the Trump administration must not discount science and ask people for blind faith.