Two unusual events happened today involving the Department of Health and Human services. Whatever the intent of these events it is unfortunate that both appear to undermine the credibility of this organization at the most inopportune time.
First, Alex M. Azar, II, the secretary of health and human services, this week prohibited the nation’s health agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC, from initiating any new rules regarding the nation’s foods, medicines, medical devices, and other products, including vaccines.
Mr. Azar wrote in a Sept. 15 memorandum outlined in an article in The New York Times, such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” The bulletin was sent to heads of operating and staff divisions within H.H.S.
Would this memo change the vetting and approval process for coronavirus vaccines, three of which are in advanced clinical trials in the United States? Who knows? Most HHS Secretaries are not physicians and not expert in regulatory issues. While the chain of command goes through them, they almost always have deferred to the heads of the FDA and CDC.
Why in the world Secretary Azar would choose this time, so close to the review process for the COVID-19 vaccines, to exert his authority is open to conjecture. Whatever the reason it is either Machiavellian or just pretty stupid!
The other weird event was the abrupt withdrawal of CDC guidelines around aerosols as a means of spreading COVID-19. These guidelines were just published on the CDC’s website last Friday then removed today with the explanation being that they were put up by mistake.
This may actually be more of a mistake than any purposeful change in perception. While there is little argument that aerosols can transmit COVID-19 especially in the areas with poor ventilation and lots of talking (bars!), this guidance talked about other issues like air purifiers that have not been shown to be effective at controlling aerosols.
Even if there are legitimate reasons that this guidance was taken down from the website, the act itself and the timing of it again serves to undermine confidence in these important government agencies when they need it the most.
At this important time, we deserve that the government act carefully and openly.