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The White House is pushing a return to its failed experiment in relying on temperature screening of air travelers to detect coronavirus despite vehement objections from the nation’s top public health agency, internal documents obtained by USA TODAY show.

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The discord underscores the administration’s disregard for science and the diminished standing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at a moment when local governments, businesses and community leaders are seeking direction on how to reopen safely.  

Recent emails show CDC scientists, who have begun owning up to initial missteps in the federal response, trying to persuade the administration to reconsider.  

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The White House directive to check travelers in 20 U.S. airports for fever comes after earlier efforts by the CDC to screen travelers returning from China failed to stop the global pandemic from reaching the United States.  

“Thermal scanning as proposed is a poorly designed control and detection strategy as we have learned very clearly,”  Dr. Martin  Cetron, the CDC’s director of global mitigation and quarantine, wrote in an email to Department of Homeland Security officials on Thursday. “We should be concentrating our CDC resources where there is impact and a probability of mission success.” 

A National Guard member takes the temperature of another who arrives at the international airport in Honolulu on April 21, 2020.

Dr. Martin Cetron, director, Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, Centers for Disease Control, speaks during a news conference at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Travelers walk through a concourse at McCarran International Airport as the coronavirus continued to spread across the United States on March 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Passengers are evacuated from the Grand Princess cruise ship in Oakland, California.


Cetron questioned his agency’s legal authority to execute the airport plan, ending the email: “Please kindly strike out CDC from this role.”  

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pressed ahead anyway, directing the DHS to announce the airport screenings, which would be visible and instill confidence in travelers, according to meeting notes.

Passengers with fever, Meadows said, would be referred to the CDC for clearance. The full plan has not yet been finalized.

The exchange follows two weeks of internal skirmishes between the CDC and the Office of Management and Budget over how to safely reopen the nation’s schools, restaurants and churches.   

Separate emails show the public health agency’s recommendations that bars install sneeze shields and teachers space student desks six feet apart were dismissed as overly prescriptive. 

As a result, detailed plans – which CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield personally approved – have idled in administration officials’ email inboxes since late April. The Associated Press has reported on the draft guidelines since last Tuesday, but an official plan has not been released.  

At the height of restrictions in late March and early April, more than 310 million Americans were under directives ranging from “shelter in place” to “stay at home.” Now governors across the United States are rolling out a patchwork of plans to relax social-distancing restrictions.

Reopening America: Federal health officials warn the bar to do so safely may be too high

“The number one public health agency is completely ineffective in the most important of moments,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “It’s so absurd.” 

CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes said in a statement that Redfield has had a seat at the table throughout the crisis.  

A New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer sits beside an art piece titled “-Thank You” by Benat Iglesias Lopez and his four-year-old son Teo which was made to thank frontline workers, outside Central Park during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York on May 9.

Plastic sheets separate customers at A Cut Above the Rest barbershop on May 9 in Las Vegas, NV. 

Social distancing signs are pictured at Eaton Canyon Golf Course, which re-opened today, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Pasadena, California on May 9.

A restaurant employee places a sign on a street corner to drum up lunchtime business as the city’s stay-at-home order to check the spread of the new coronavirus expired on May 9 in Denver, CO.

Guests drive their vehicles through the Phoenix Zoo on May 9 in Phoenix, AZ. The zoo has lost over $4 million since closing in March due to the COVID-19, coronavirus outbreak. In an effort to generate revenue to feed and care for the animals, the zoo began allowing people to drive through the park to view the animals from their own vehicles. The “Zoo Cruise” is scheduled to run through May. 

Pedestrians walk through the nearly empty Oculus during the coronavirus pandemic on May 9 in New York. 

Local artist Claudia La Bianca, left, works on a mural honoring health care workers on the sides of a parking garage at Jackson Memorial Hospital during the new coronavirus pandemic on May 9 in Miami, FL.

Rhoda Kay waves to family members while celebrating her 100th birthday from behind a window at Aegis Living San Francisco, as no visitors are allowed inside the senior living facility during the coronavirus outbreak, in South San Francisco, Calif. on May 9.

A woman dressed for the unseasonably cold weather waits at a food distribution site, on May 9, in Chelsea, Mass.

Visitors enjoy the boardwalk on the first day of eased coronavirus restrictions for the beach and boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, on May 9.

Gibson Mbedzi delivers vegetables to a restaurant opening for takeout on May 9, in Providence, R.I. Non-essential businesses are reopening under Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan to gradually lift some restrictions imposed to slow the outbreak.

Postal workers gather for a balloon release ceremony to honor letter carrier Unique Clay on May 9, in Chicago, Illinois. Clay, 31, died from complications from COVID-19 on May 5, a week after giving birth to her third child.

UTR cleaning staff sanitize the court between matches due to new COVID-19 safety guidelines during the UTR Pro Match Series on May 9, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Volunteers for Feeding Tampa Bay and other groups distribute food to the needy at the Hillsborough Community College on May 9, in Tampa, Fla. The Mega Food Pantry intends to give out more than 3,500 meals to the public struggling from the effects of the coronavirus.

Isaias Perez Yanez, 59, is applauded by hospital staff as he is released from Sharp Coronado Hospital after battling COVID-19 for five weeks on May 8, in Coronado, California. 

Battelle decontamination technicians Zachary Leiman, left, and Rod McCollum prepare to test a Battelle CCDS Critical Care Decontamination System on May 8 in Brighton, Colorado. The decontamination system can process up to 80,000 used N95 respirators per day using vapor phase hydrogen peroxide that kills coronavirus and allows masks to be reused 20 times without degradation. 

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a roundtable with agriculture and food supply leaders about steps being taken to ensure the food supply remains secure in response to the coronavirus pandemic, on May 8 in West Des Moines, Iowa. 

People pass close to one another as businesses in the flower district in Skid Row reopen in time for Mothers Day on May 8 in Los Angeles, California. Local stay-at-home restrictions are being relaxed to allow the reopening of some businesses, including bookshops, clothing stores, car dealerships, and some low-risk retailers that can provide curbside pickup. However, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti has repeatedly warned that if people do not wear masks or face coverings and practice social social distancing at these businesses and locales, the city may have to close them down once again. 

Workers at Island Harvest Food Bank working in conjunction with the Nourish New York initiative, distribute New York produced goods to people in need of food assistance on May 8 in Massapequa. In this event, Island Harvest was able to supply enough food for 3,000 families in their continuing effort to assist those who are suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pasadena High School graduating student Joshua Dionisio is helped with his mortar before the official portrait at a drive-thru studio in Pasadena, California, on May 8. 

A North Memorial medical worker gave a thumbs up to a woman who was just tested for COVID-19 at the hospital’s drive-up testing site on May 8 in Robbinsdale,  Minnesota 

A temporary closed sign shows at the Neiman Marcus department store in Northbrook, Illinois, on May 8. Neiman Marcus became the first major department store group to file for bankruptcy protection during the coronavirus pandemic.

Democratic state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai wears a mask as she tells member how the coronavirus has devastated the Navajo Nation while urging members to approve a move to end the legislative session at the state Capitol in Phoenix, on May 8. The Senate by a 24-6 vote approved a move to adjourn pending approval by the House. 

Daune Mumford performs maintenance on a mini-golf course in anticipation of the relaxing of coronavirus disease restrictions at the popular beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland, on May 8. 

President Donald Trump makes remarks at the beginning of a meeting with Congressional Republicans in the White House on May 8, in Washington, D.C. Trump insisted that the national economy will recover this year from the damage caused by novel coronavirus pandemic, saying, “I’m calling it the transition to greatness.”

Navy Blue Angels fly over Miami to pay tribute to the frontline workers fighting COVID-19 on May 8, in Miami, Florida.

Medea Micham has her hair blow dried by stylist Jill Cespedes at Shampoo Salon on May 8, in Fort Worth, Texas. Texas Govenor Greg Abbott announced that hair salons, barber shops and tanning salons are allowed to open on Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

People walk along Wall Street as the coronavirus keeps financial markets and businesses mostly closed on May 8, in New York City.

As a small gesture of gratitude during National Nurses Week, and in recognition of their tremendous contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brigham and Womens nurses received orchids outside of the hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 8.

A sign informs shoppers of limits on beef purchases in the meat department at the Redner’s Warehouse Market in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, on May 8.

Volunteers organize boxes to be distributed during a food distribution at a Salvation Army location in Reading, Pennsylvania, on May 8.

Spencer Kelly, dressed as the grim reaper, demonstrates in favor of the stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic on May 8, in Huntington Beach, California.

A UV cleaning robot cleans the floor near the ticketing windows at Pittsburgh International Airport on May 7, in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh International Airport has put UVC fixtures on its floor-cleaning robots, making it the first airport in the US to test the use of the ultraviolet rays to scrub the coronavirus from surfaces. If effective, the UV-cleaning robots could be a model for other airports as they plan to reopen and try to persuade people to travel again.

General view of a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests, in Washington, on May 7.

Dannie of Cheeseburger Baby seals an individually wrapped meal for Meals for Heroes Miami shut on May 7, in Miami Beach, Florida. Meals for Heroes Miami is a non-profit which uses donations to support local restaurants by paying them to produce meals for frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medical workers hold up an American Flag outside NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, in New York City.

A pedestrian crosses a deserted downtown street at dusk on May 7, in Kansas City, Mo as the city remains under stay-at-home orders until May 15 in an effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

Alea Hurst and Renee Hurst, water tube Cymbidium Orchids that will be placed in Mother’s Day floral arrangements at Rolling Hills Flower Mart, in Redondo Beach on May 7 as staff are busy filling orders since the order came that florist may open Friday for curbside pick-up.

STREET, MARYLAND – MAY 07: Members of the community play golf at Geneva Farm Golf Course on May 7, 2020 in Street, Maryland. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the state would lift coronavirus-related restrictions in connection with his stay-at-home order, allowing certain outdoor activities such as golf, tennis and camping.

A 3D printer prints plastic parts for a medical face shield at the Brambleton Library on May 7, in Brambleton, Virginia. The Loudoun County, Virginia library system is using four of their libraries to print over 1,000 face shields per week using 3D printers at their facilities.

Buca di Beppo honors frontline healthcare workers during nurses appreciation week by delivering meals to healthcare workers at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center on May 7, in Las Vegas. 

Brian Waldret, co-owner of Hello Salon, disinfects every surface in the salon in preparation for reopening after being closed for several weeks due to the coronavirus on May 7, in Laveen, Ariz.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the coronavirus response with Gov. Greg Abbott, in the White House on May 7 in Washington D.C.

Truckers protest low wages caused by the economic impact of COVID-19 as they stage a demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C on May 7.

Customers observe social distancing as they wait to be allowed to shop at a Trader Joe’s supermarket in Omaha, Nebraska on May 7. Store workers across the country are suddenly being asked to enforce the rules that govern shopping during the coronavirus pandemic.

Police escort individuals sleeping on trains out of the cars as the New York City subway system is closed for nightly cleaning due to the continued spread of the coronavirus on May 7 in New York City. Following reports of homeless New Yorkers sleeping on the trains and the deaths of numerous subway employees, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has decided to close New York’s subway system from 1am to 5am every evening for a deep cleaning.

Chairman Lamar Alexander, speaks at a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests May 7 on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.  

Volunteers hand off food items to slowly moving vehicles at a Foodshare distribution center in East Hartford, Connecticut on May 7 during the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the National Nurses United observe a moment of silence for the 88 nurses they say have died from COVID-19 while demonstrating in Lafayette Park across from the White House on May 7 in Washington, D.C.

Hoping to pick up work, day laborers wait outside a U-Haul moving van rental business in Falls Church, Virginia on May 7.

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The agency’s public health expertise is “helping shape our nation’s response, as well as the response by our state and local health department partners who continue to be on the front line fighting this war,” Haynes said. 

He said the CDC is revising its reopening guidance, based on White House feedback, but did not address the records that show the agency sparring with administration officials over the airport screenings, referring questions to the White House. 

White House spokesman Judd Deere downplayed any discord, noting the  administration has been “encouraging all Americans to follow the CDC guidelines from the very beginning of this pandemic.”

He said the CDC never cleared the reopening instructions it wanted to issue, and that  standardized guidance would be inappropriate across all states. Deere did not answer questions about the airport screening proposal. 

In an Oval Office meeting last week, Trump signaled support for some form of increased health screenings, which airlines hope will convince travelers it’s safe to fly again.

This week, the chief executive officer of Southwest Airlines said the Transportation Security Administration should add temperature scans to airport security checkpoints, and discount carrier Frontier announced plans to begin screening passengers before they board with touchless thermometers, beginning June 1. 

Frontier Airlines: First U.S. airline to announce passenger temperature checks

The White House coronavirus task force also has requested evidence of results from the screenings after the President’s China travel ban early in the U.S. outbreak, in late January, emails show.

Scientists, including those at the CDC, have repeatedly insisted that those measures miss the large percentage of people infected with COVID-19 who display no symptoms  or can infect others before or without spiking a fever. And fever can be a sign of a wide range of illnesses.

In Nevada, public health officials struggled to get basic details from the CDC about contact information for the early travelers it was supposed to track, according to records obtained by USA TODAY under a public records request.

The head of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services sent an alarmed letter to Redfield on Feb. 11. 

“I am concerned about the breakdown between the communication the states have received from the CDC,” Nevada public health director Richard Whitley wrote. “The lack of communication in this circumstance created frustration and confusion for all those involved.”

CDC spokesman Haynes said issues were addressed “as quickly and efficiently as possible,” calling the airport screenings starting in January unprecedented.

Taking stock of past failures and disease spread  

Recently, the CDC has begun both a public and private reckoning of its early mistakes, putting it at odds with a White House that has steadfastly defended the federal response.

An internal CDC memo, commissioned at the request of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and obtained by USA TODAY,  reviews how the federal government missed early warning signs as the virus spread undetected around Washington state and California as early as late-January.  

The agency also published a report last week highlighting the role of travel and large gatherings like Mardi Gras, a professional conference in Boston and a small-town funeral in contributing to the early spread. The analysis was intended to help public health better prepare for the next outbreak, and not repeat mistakes.  

More: Federal coronavirus strategy lurches as plans to help states change, then change again

The federal government’s coronavirus failures may have started with the first case documented in the United States, the CDC acknowledges in the internal memo documenting the disease’s spread.

Viral genetic sequencing now suggests a link from the first case detected in late January in Washington state, involving a man who had traveled to China, to a chain of some 300 infections, although numbers vary widely.  

The same viral line also circulated on a Grand Princess cruise ship that departed several weeks later out of California, the first in a set of voyages that ended with with evacuation and quarantine of passengers.

That explosion of infections occurred despite the CDC’s leadership of a vigorous public health response. The Washington state resident’s close contacts were carefully tracked and monitored.     

In the internal memo, the agency speculates that its efforts nonetheless could have missed people who were infectious but only later, or never, showed symptoms. Large numbers of those infected with the virus now are known to be such asymptomatic cases, although at the time that had not yet been fully recognized. 

“The virus could have spread from this case, despite the thorough investigation and response,” the CDC memo notes, adding a concerning conclusion for a country facing a likely second wave of the virus: The origin of the Washington cluster “will probably always be unknown.”    

The agency’s internal accounting of how the virus spread recognizes another shortcoming in the lack of adequate testing in the early stages of the outbreak. Critical weeks elapsed in February with minimal testing capacity after the CDC botched the development of what was then the nation’s only coronavirus test.

In the memo, the CDC says early transmission occurred during a period of “limited availability of testing.” But instead of highlighting its own delays in developing a reliable test, the agency described a Food and Drug Administration policy that blocked the scaling up of testing through commercial laboratories until late February. 

Consequences of testing delays still coming to light.   

Public health officials in Santa Clara County, California, recently learned from autopsies that two people who died in their homes in early and mid-February were infected with the new coronavirus – suggesting the virus was spreading locally much earlier than previously recognized.    

These deaths occurred “during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC,” the California health officials said in a news release, noting that the agency’s guidance on testing then excluded people without a travel history or specific symptoms.   

The CDC’s internal memo, however, minimizes the agency’s authority in those situations.  

“CDC guidelines emphasized that they were just that – ‘guidelines’ – and that decisions about testing needed to be made on a case-by-case basis,” the document stated, adding that the discoveries in Santa Clara County, which the agency confirmed in late April, were still “preliminary and could easily change.”    

Haynes, the CDC spokesman, confirmed the government made decisions in January and February based on available data of likely exposures by those who had traveled to Wuhan, China. In addition, he said, “CDC guidance has always allowed for clinical discretion on who should be tested.”  

Dr. Alison Roxby, a University of Washington epidemiologist who has been testing nursing home patients in the Seattle area, said she has been consistently let down by the federal response. She compared her recent experiences — vying for testing supplies daily with little clear direction from the federal government — with her time working in developing African countries.  

“The leadership vacuum is tremendous,” said Roxby, noting that inconsistent public health messages have contributed to people mistakenly believing the crisis has passed.  

“It’s not over,” Roxby said. “It’s the eye of the hurricane.” 

Reporter Kenny Jacoby contributed to this report.

Brett Murphy and Letitia Stein are reporters on the USA TODAY investigation desk. Contact Brett at or @brettMmurphy and Letitia at, @LetitiaStein, by phone or Signal at 813-524-0673.  

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CDC scientists overruled in White House push to restart airport fever screenings for COVID-19

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