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Former CDC Director On Trump's Criticism Of School Reopening Guidelines

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trump administration is pushing hard for schools to reopen this fall. But how? Well, the CDC released guidelines suggesting school dismissals if there's a spread of the infection in a community, also modified classes, staggered arrival times and enforced social distancing for communities with mild to moderate transmissions. But yesterday, President Trump dismissed these guidelines, which came from his own administration. He called them tough, expensive and impractical. And he said he wanted to talk to the CDC.

The agency now says new guidelines are going to be published next week. We have a former director of the CDC on the line with us. It's Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, who led the agency from 1998 to 2002. He's now vice president for global health at Emory University. Dr. Koplan, thanks for being here.

JEFFREY KOPLAN: Good morning, David.

GREENE: As you look broadly at the current spread of the virus across the United States, I mean, do widespread school openings across the country this fall somehow make sense to you broadly?

KOPLAN: Well, they can only make sense in the context of what else is going on in the community around them. Have no fear, the public health community is extraordinarily eager to see students back in school for a wide range of issues as pediatricians and school officials. But a key element in it is the caveat - as long as it is taking care of the health of the children and paying attention to risks and mitigating those risks in schools.

GREENE: Well, can I ask you about mitigating the risks? I mean, I just think about a couple of the words that the president used, expensive and impractical. I mean, some of what the CDC is talking about - you know, physical barriers, additional, aggressive cleaning in schools, different class times - I mean, is there an argument that those things could be really expensive and, in some cases, not that practical?

KOPLAN: I guess you can make an argument out of anything. But to refer these basic activities - seeing if the school is ready to protect children with the highest risk who have other diseases, the ability to screen students and employees when they arrive at work for symptoms - those aren't impractical. They're not tough. And they're not expensive. So to use those as a basis for rejecting these guidelines is absurd.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about that. I mean, there seems to be a very public disagreement here between the president and the CDC. Is there precedent for that? I mean, when you were at the agency, were there times when the president might come out and say to the CDC that, you know, he just doesn't agree with the agency?

KOPLAN: Did it - has it occurred else - other times in CDCs history, in my 30-plus years of being intimately involved with the agency? There are times when there's disagreement, but never such a level of public discord, which is actually troublesome for controlling the outbreak. It leaves the public saying, well, who do we listen to? And who's right? Why are these instructions fragmented? They must not be that important if people have such differing views on it.

And certainly, in my experience over the years in different positions, that could be worked out ahead of time and yet have cogent, specific, helpful guidelines that are needed by the public at large whether it's in schools or in other places. If one looks at the CDC recommendations - the current set, not the revised, futuristic set...

GREENE: Right.

KOPLAN: ...It's recommending standard mitigation procedures, health and safety issues. It's promoting hygiene, cloth masks, cleaning of the rooms. These are things that we've been talking about for some time now. And to refer to those as too expensive - how can they be too expensive?

GREENE: Well, though, I guess the point might be that Congress has not allocated enough funding - not nearly enough, at this point - for school districts to make a lot of these changes. Isn't that right?

KOPLAN: Well, if the person criticizing these changes hasn't been an advocate for the public health measures, that makes it difficult for Congress and the executive branch to come to some agreement on this. In the meantime, the outbreak is getting worse by the day.

GREENE: Dr. Jeffrey Koplan is the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - the CDC. He led the agency from 1998 to 2002. He's now vice president for global health at Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Koplan, thanks so much.

KOPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.