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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.
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.
“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.”