Vice President Pence Ordered U.S. Borders Sealed in March Due to COVID-19, After CDC Experts Advised Against It

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Vice President Mike Pence in March directed the nation’s top disease control agency to use its emergency powers to effectively seal the U.S. borders, overruling the agency’s scientists who said there was no evidence the action would slow the coronavirus, according to two former health officials. The action has so far caused nearly 150,000 children and adults to be expelled from the country.

The top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor who oversees these types of orders had refused to comply with a Trump administration directive saying there was no valid public health reason to issue it, according to three people with direct knowledge of the doctor’s refusal.

So Pence intervened in early March. The vice president, who had taken over the Trump administration’s response to the growing pandemic, called Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director, and told him to use the agency’s special legal authority in a pandemic anyway.

Also on the phone call were Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. Redfield immediately ordered his senior staff to get it done, according to a former CDC official who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The CDC’s order covered the U.S. borders with both Mexico and Canada, but has mostly affected the thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants arriving at the southern border. Public health experts had urged the administration to focus on a national mask mandate, enforce social distancing and increase the number of contact tracers to track down people exposed to the virus. 

But Stephen Miller, a top aide to President Donald Trump who has been a vocal opponent of immigration, pushed for the expulsion order.

“That was a Stephen Miller special. He was all over that,” said Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Pence, who coordinated the White House coronavirus task force. She recently resigned in protest, saying the administration had placed politics above public health. “There was a lot of pressure on DHS and CDC to push this forward.”

Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act gives federal health officials unique powers during a pandemic to take extraordinary measures to limit transmission of an infectious disease. One of those is the ability to stop the flow of immigration from countries with high numbers of confirmed cases, a legal authority the CDC does not normally have.

Public health experts say the administration’s pattern of dismissing science-based decision making in favor of political goals has endangered many, including President Donald Trump himself, who on Friday confirmed he and the first lady had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The decision to halt asylum processes ‘to protect the public health’ is not based on evidence or science,” wrote Dr. Anthony So, an international public health expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a letter to Redfield in April. “This order directly endangers tens of thousands of lives and threatens to amplify dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia.”

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