Health and Science

Cuomo rips into CDC as Trump's political tool, says New York won't follow new virus guidance

Key Points
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state won't be following the CDC's new guidance on coronavirus testing and urged others to do the same.
  • The agency quietly revised its recommendations to downplay the importance of testing people without symptoms for Covid-19.
  • "Shame on the people at the CDC," Cuomo said, calling the change in guidance "indefensible." 
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a COVID-19 briefing in New York City.
David Dee Delgado | Getty Images

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday the state won't follow new federal guidance on coronavirus testing and urged others to do the same after CDC quietly revised its recommendations to downplay the importance of testing people without symptoms for Covid-19.

"Shame on the people at the CDC," Cuomo said, calling the change "indefensible." 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's previously recommended testing for anyone with a "recent known or suspected exposure" to the virus even if they did not have symptoms. The previous guidance cited "the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission" as a reason why people without symptoms who were exposed to the virus should be "quickly identified and tested." Numerous studies have shown that people who don't have symptoms can still carry and spread the virus — even a few days before symptoms appear or if they never develop symptoms. 

WHO on CDC testing guidelines
WHO on CDC testing guidelines

The new guidance, published Monday, says people without symptoms who were in close contact with an infected person for at least 15 minutes "do not necessarily need a test." The guidance still recommends testing for vulnerable people if they've come within 6 feet of someone with a confirmed infection for at least 15 minutes.

"We're not going to follow the CDC guidance. 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. It is the exact opposite of what the CDC has been saying," Cuomo said on a conference call with reporters. "So either the CDC is schizophrenic or they are admitting error in their first position or this is just political dictations."

Later Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Cuomo in rejecting the CDC's new guidance. "This will not be the policy of the state of CA," Newsom said over Twitter.

Cuomo also criticized the CDC for failing to alert Americans to the threat of the coronavirus earlier, before it arrived in the U.S. and began to spread rapidly in parts of the country, including the New York tristate region. 

"They either lied to the American people or they're incompetent, because they didn't track the virus in China. And they didn't track the virus leaving China and going to Europe," Cuomo said. "The CDC either totally missed it or they were ordered not to speak about it. This just evidences, once again, political control over what's supposed to be a public health organization."

Cuomo went on to allege that the testing recommendations were changed "because they don't want publicity that there is a Covid problem."

"Because the president's politics are Covid isn't the problem, we're past Covid," Cuomo said. "It's all about the economy, and the economy is doing great. We're going to focus on the economy. And that's his reelection strategy. So he's using the CDC as a campaign rhetorical device."

When reached for comment, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services Michael Caputo said "consider the source."

"Governor Cuomo failed to follow federal guidance before and then proceeded to seed the coronavirus throughout New York nursing homes, killing thousands," Caputo said in a statement, referring to a New York state policy that directed nursing homes to accept Covid-19 patients from hospitals.

"Cuomo must not understand this guidance has been updated to place an emphasis on testing individuals for clinical and public health reasons, including the testing of asymptomatic people when directed by public health leaders or health care providers," he said.

Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb on CDC's back-to-school guidelines
Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb on CDC's back-to-school guidelines

On a conference call with reporters later Wednesday, Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, who leads the Trump administration's testing effort, defended the policy change, saying that it empowers local health officials and clinicians. He also denied that there was any political intervention or pressure from the Trump administration.

"Let me tell you, right up front that the new guidelines are a CDC action," he said. He added that members of the White House coronavirus task force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, discussed and agreed on the new guidelines. There were no officials from the CDC on the call.

Fauci later told CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta that he "was under general anesthesia in the operating room and was not part of any discussion or deliberation regarding the new testing recommendations."

"There was no weight on the scales by the president or the vice president or Secretary Azar," Giroir said on the call, referring to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. "This was a product produced by the scientific and medical people that was discussed extensively at the task force and everyone approved it."

But the policy change prompted confusion and disappointment among some epidemiologists and former health officials, including Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC director under President Barack Obama, who also criticized the change. 

Representatives from the CDC did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Dr. Howard Zucker, New York state's health commissioner, called the change "indefensible" and said it "makes absolutely no sense."

"I have spoken with the scientists at the CDC, and they say it's political," Zucker added.