Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer.
The extraordinarily disruptive turnover in the Trump administration’s senior staff has officially reached the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The White House, having already cycled through one CDC director, has named its second: Robert Redfield, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and former University of Maryland opioids and AIDS researcher.
He is exactly the wrong person for the job. Amid an exploding influenza epidemic across the United States, an opioids crisis that has decreased the statistical life expectancy of Americans, and a budget crisis that twice compelled closure of critical laboratory and disease-fighting services, the CDC desperately needs a leader who can promise stability and expertise. Redfield represents the opposite; he is someone whose track record in HIV research and public health policy has been a scientific and moral failure.
The White House, in all likelihood, has carefully scrutinized Redfield’s financial history, especially after it was criticized for failing to adequately vet Trump’s first CDC director, Brenda Fitzgerald, who was forced to resign in January after revelations of multiple conflicts of interest involving stocks and other investments. But Redfield has failed to pass political vetting before — just not for economic reasons. In 2002, President George W. Bush considered but rejected Redfield for the top CDC job because his work on AIDS was deemed excessively controversial. Redfield’s record remains disqualifying today.
Forced testing, forced discharge
From the early 1980s to the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic was claiming a staggering death toll, and no treatment for HIV existed, Redfield was a U.S. Army major and vaccine researcher at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland. During President Ronald Reagan’s administration, Redfield guided the military’s public health response to HIV infections within the armed forces and also its pursuit of a vaccine against the virus. In both tasks, Redfield proved extremely controversial.
Among the Defense Department policies that Redfield helped design was mandatory testing of all troops for HIV, without confidentiality, beginning in October 1985. Any soldier, sailor, pilot, or marine who proved to be infected would quickly learn that his entire chain of command was aware of his status, often before he was informed. Recruits were screened, and those whose tests were positive were barred from service.
Active-duty personnel were also tested and if positive would face degrading mistreatment, as I discovered in 1989, when I reported in and around Fort Hood, the Army’s largest training and staging area, located in Texas. Terrified 18- and 19-year-old soldiers found to be infected with HIV would be isolated to a special barracks wing, known on the base as the “HIV hotel” or “the leper colony,” where they were treated like prisoners until they either developed full-blown AIDS or were discharged dishonorably.
The military seemed intent on administratively punishing infected soldiers for their HIV status. Soldiers described being summoned to meet with a chaplain, who would inform them that they had tested positive for HIV, and counsel them while military police rifled through their barracks searching for evidence of homosexuality and the names of possible sex partners. “You go through the Article 15 [disciplinary actions] list and see how many are HIVs,” one discharged soldier told me in 1989. “They are giving out seven or eight Article 15s a day over there. There’s no morale over there.”
About 5 million soldiers and recruits were tested by 1989, with 6,000 of them proving HIV positive. Anecdotally, many of these young men committed suicide, and most were drummed out of the military without medical coverage, dying impoverished from their AIDS disease. Read more via Foreign Policy