Enlarge /. Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building in Washington, DC on May 1, 2018 to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staff.
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In a stunning podcast published by the Department of Health and Human Services, two senior department officials repeatedly downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, railed against mitigation efforts, called the personal schooling shutdown "nonsense" and said US journalists don't do this "Damn it over public health information."
The podcast, which was posted on the HHS website on Sept. 11, is part of a series hosted by Michael Caputo, who currently holds the title of HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Although Caputo has no background in healthcare, he was accepted into the division by the White House in April – a move allegedly taken to gain more control through the White House of HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Caputo is a longtime Trump loyalist and former campaign official. He began as a protégé of Roger Stone and later worked as an advisor to Boris Yeltsin in Moscow and worked for Vladimir Putin in public relations.
Caputo recently hit the headlines for disrupting and amending scientific reports on COVID-19 made by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The interference should better align reports with the news from Trump, who has admitted downplaying the pandemic. Caputo also raised his eyebrows with a live Facebook video, reported by the New York Times on Monday, in which, without evidence, he accused government scientists of engaging in "riot" and alleged that the CDC is hosting a "resistance unit" . He also spoke of long "shadows" in his DC apartment and said the left-wing "hit teams" would prepare for an armed riot after the election.
With its slightly more upbeat HHS podcast series, The Learning Curve, Caputo sheds light on the work of HHS officials so that listeners can "learn from the people I learn from." In the September 11 episode in which he describes government scientists as "an incredible group of experts," Caputo spoke to Elinore McCance-Katz, director of the Drug Abuse and Mental Health Agency (SAMHSA), a branch of HHS.
McCance-Katz, whom Caputo referred to as "one of the angels of the department," is a psychiatrist with a PhD in infectious disease epidemiology from Yale. She was SAMHSA's chief medical officer during the Obama administration, but resigned after two years, saying SAMHSA had not done enough to treat people with serious mental illness. The Trump administration reassigned her to the agency in 2017 and she has since publicly coordinated with some of Trump's views on the pandemic.
In the podcast, the conversation between Caputo and McCance-Katz began unobtrusively. The two discussed the opioid epidemic and related HHS efforts. But about 20 minutes into the hour-long episode began, the discussion shifted to criticism of stay-at-home orders and other mitigation measures. Both Caputo and McCance-Katz suggested that stay-at-home orders were unnecessary and only exacerbated the psychological distress of Americans from the pandemic.
While public health experts have long established that lockdowns are indeed draconian, they also recognize that they were necessary to contain the insidious spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Such restrictions on movement and distancing have been largely effective in combating outbreaks in countries around the world – apart from, of course, the United States, which failed spectacularly in dealing with the deadly pandemic.
Still, Caputo and McCance-Katz rejected the mitigation strategy as one that was only promoted by rich people who easily manage to stay at home. "The people who say, 'It's safer at home. Stay at home tend to be folks who are pretty wealthy, ”Caputo said.
"Yeah, it's probably safer for her at home," McCance-Katz replied. "You are going to a fine house, a large house with all the conveniences."
They further suggested that activities such as a soccer game or a movie theater are mainly enjoyed by people from "the lower strata of our economic system" and therefore these activities have been restricted. Meanwhile, "wealthy people with the house on the beach, they watch Netflix and every other streaming platform," Caputo added. People who are key employees, like those who work in hospitals, "don't have access to these subscriptions," he said.
"And I'll just say it," McCance-Katz said shortly afterwards. “We closed the whole country before, in my opinion, the virus had a chance to explore the whole country. Why? "The stay-at-home orders are similar to using a" sledgehammer when we need a scalpel, "she added.
Caputo agreed and said, “No doubt about it. And you know what? For me the damage is done. "
Death and despair
The two continue to discuss the impact the pandemic is having on children and express their disgust that face-to-face learning has been suspended in many places in an attempt to curb the spread of disease. "What nonsense is it that it is somehow unsafe to return to school?" McCance-Katz asked after determining that most children infected with SARS-CoV-2 do not get seriously ill. Although they recently discovered that people in the "lower classes" often live in crowded multi-generational homes, they failed to discuss the risk of children passing the virus on to family members and other people in their communities.
Caputo, who, as noted, disrupted the CDC's scientific reports on the pandemic, accused the US media of being "dishonest" and distorting the public's perception of the virus. He also accused the media of "beating the president" and "trampling" optimism about COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. "I don't think the US media cares about public health information," he said.
"Me neither," replied McCance-Katz.
Towards the end, McCance-Katz offered an easier view. Although she speculated that "thousands" could die of pandemic despair, she argued that Americans are resilient and that "the desperation will subside".
However, Caputo ended on a darker, confusing note. Although he had spent much of the episode downplaying the pandemic, he concluded by stressing the severity of COVID-19 and its death toll. "I find myself every morning when I use my voice for the first time, I am talking about death," he said.
"We hear reports in our meetings … These people (with COVID-19) are drowning in their own fluids," he said. “And the doctors told me that it is the deepest fear one can have. And that the looks on their faces when they die are just something they can't forget. These doctors cannot forget. And the way – and I talk – that's the first thing I talk about in the morning. "
According to a new report from Politico, Caputo convened an emergency meeting on Tuesday to apologize to HHS staff for his comments on the Facebook live video claiming the CDC was hosting a "resistance unit". Some HHS employees told Politico they felt Caputo was planning to resign.
To date, the United States has reported more than 6.5 million cases of COVID-19 and over 195,000 deaths.