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CDC says asymptomatic people should get tested for COVID-19 after all

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After reports the Trump administration tampered with CDC data and defied scientists’ guidance

Coronavirus Testing In Dedham Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today that individuals who don’t have coronavirus symptoms should get tested, reversing guidance that stirred controversy last month. The reversal follows a report published yesterday by The New York Times which revealed that the initial guidance was pushed by non-scientists in the Trump administration against the objections of public health officials and experts.

The new guidance, issued on the CDC’s website on Friday, now clarifies that individuals should seek a COVID-19 test if they feel they’ve been in close contact with those who tested positive for the virus, regardless of whether they’re displaying symptoms. “Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, this guidance further reinforces the need to test asymptomatic persons, including close contacts of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the update says.

In last month’s update, the CDC said Americans shouldn’t seek a COVID-19 test unless they exhibited symptoms — despite well-established evidence that asymptomatic individuals could contract and spread the virus without knowing. This was puzzling until The New York Times reported that the guidance was not written by CDC scientists.

Instead, officials at the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) published the guidance to the CDC website against the protests of the agency’s employees. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that HHS officials have also been tampering with the CDC’s weekly coronavirus findings, like information on the virus’s associated death rate, as a way to appease the Trump administration.

The CDC’s role in issuing public health guidance and helping various state and federal organizations combat the coronavirus has been highly controversial throughout the pandemic. Public health officials and Democratic politicians have expressed concern the agency and its various leaders fumbled the COVID-19 response by deferring to partisan administration officials invested in downplaying the spread of the virus. When the CDC issued its revised guidance last month, at least 33 states defied it and continued recommending individuals exposed to COVID-19 get tested regardless of symptoms, Reuters reported.

The US response to the coronavirus has lagged behind that of other developed countries, almost all of which have pursued an aggressive approach involving social distancing and stay-at-home orders, testing, and contact tracing, as well as mandates around wearing masks. The US, on the other hand, has struggled to ramp up testing nationwide and has become embroiled in divisive nationwide arguments around mask-wearing, social distancing, and the pace of reopening measures. Meanwhile, positive case numbers and deaths continue to rise in hotspots throughout the country, particularly in the Midwest and South where schools have begun reopening.