CDC drops controversial testing advice that caused backlash

By , Special to the Daily Memphian; , Daily Memphian Updated: September 18, 2020 5:33 PM CT | Published: September 18, 2020 5:29 PM CT

U.S. health officials dropped a controversial piece of coronavirus guidance Friday, Sept. 18, and said anyone who has been in close contact with an infected person should get tested.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention essentially returned to its previous testing guidance, getting rid of language posted last month that said people didn’t need to get tested if they didn’t feel sick. That change had set off a rash of criticism from health experts who couldn’t fathom why the nation’s top public health agency would say such a thing amid the pandemic.

“I would agree with most infectious disease doctors that I know in saying it is the right thing and probably never should have been changed in the first place,” said Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, an infectious disease expert treating COVID-19 patients at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis. “I think many people said that, including me, when it happened.”

Doctors scratch heads over CDC guidance for less testing

The CDC now says anyone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes should get a test. In a statement, the agency called the changes a “clarification” that was needed “due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission.”

Agency officials declined additional comment.

“When we look back on this pandemic, we will see, even more clearly than we see right now, that we didn’t do enough testing,” Threlkeld said. “We didn’t test enough symptomatic people. We didn’t test enough asymptomatic people.”

Health officials were evasive about why they had made the guidance change in August, and some outside observers speculated it was forced on the CDC by political appointees within the Trump administration.

At the time, administration officials said the language originated at the CDC, but the decision came out of meetings of the White House coronavirus task force.

Dr. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, said many federal leaders outside the agency were involved in “lots of editing, lots of input.” He said it was difficult to attribute the final language to any one source.

The New York Times, citing internal federal documents and unnamed sources, reported on Thursday that the guidance was placed on the CDC’s website over the objections of agency scientists.

Public health experts have noted that testing the contacts of infected people is a core element of efforts to keep outbreaks in check.

State to ease COVID-19 restrictions on nursing homes

“A large part of the transmission may be before symptoms develop, and, when you have that going on, you have to be that much more diligent about finding the people who are going to get it,” Threlkeld said. “We haven’t done that in enough number.”

The CDC’s chief, Dr. Robert Redfield, issued a statement shortly after the controversy erupted that did little to clarify why the change was deemed necessary. The main intent seemed to be to assure state health officials that they could continue to recommend that all close contacts be tested if they felt that was wisest, despite the website language that said it was not necessary.

During a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday, Redfield continued to defend the language that was dropped Friday. He said the August changes had been “misinterpreted” and were part of an effort to increase engagement by doctors and local health officials in the handling of potential illness clusters.

Adriane Casalotti of the National Association of County and City Health Officials said the now-deleted guidance had caused confusion among the public. Local health officials spent a lot time answering questions about whether people should get tested “as opposed to actually doing the testing,” she said

Threlkeld said it was time to push ahead with targeted asymptomatic testing in schools and screening certain workplaces in certain situations “so we can more safely get back to work and to school in person, which is what we all want.” 

Dr. Richard Besser, chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said he believes the August change was made to give “wiggle room” to governors who did not want to increase testing.

The whole episode is disturbing because it makes it harder for the public to understand why the CDC is making recommendations and whether that advice can be trusted, added Besser, who previously spent 13 years at the CDC and was acting director at the beginning of a 2009 flu pandemic.

The CDC and Food and Drug Administration have to be seen as reliable sources of science information as the administration gears up for a national coronavirus vaccination campaign, Besser said.

“If we can’t believe that, then even if there is a safe and effective vaccine, a significant portion of the population will not want to get it,” he said.

– Mike Stobbe, AP Medical Writer

Bluff City Biz

Sign up to get the latest news and analysis from our Business team.

Manage Your Email Subscriptions


Centers for Disease Control Dr. Stephen Threlkeld
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.


Reading comments and joining the conversation are some of the many benefits of subscribing. Join the conversation by clicking the View Comments button below. Not a subscriber? Click here. 

Our commenting policy can be viewed here

Bluff City Biz

Sign up to get the latest news and analysis from our Business team.

Manage Your Email Subscriptions