A new documentary shows how a top CDC official who warned Americans about the coronavirus promptly vanished from public view

Aylin Woodward
·6 min read
nancy messonnier
Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, at a coronavirus briefing on January 28. Samuel Corum/Getty

During the first two months of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held briefings about the novel coronavirus almost daily. Leading them was Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, who also helped the US navigate the 2001 anthrax scare.

Day after day, Messonnier explained how many COVID-19 cases the US had identified, what measures the CDC was implementing to minimize transmission, and how concerned Americans needed to be. She shared some updates on Twitter as well.

Read more: Why Republicans plan to ignore Trump's demands for a big coronavirus stimulus before the election

But on February 25, everything changed.

That day, Messonnier told Americans: "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."

Less than two weeks after that, Messonnier and the CDC stopped delivering such regular briefings.

neon poster
The official poster for "Totally Under Control," a new documentary about the US government's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy of Neon

A new documentary, called "Totally Under Control," reveals startling new details about why Messonnier and her CDC briefings disappeared after that bombshell warning. The film, made in relative secrecy by Jigsaw Productions over the past five months, began streaming on Hulu on Tuesday. Directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger, it blasts the Trump administration's response to the pandemic.

Experts interviewed in the film say that Messonnier was quietly shunted from the public eye after she diverged from the White House's preferred messaging without clearing it with the president.

Read more: The doctors and scientists who'll evaluate every coronavirus vaccine are set to meet for the first time. Here are the 7 biggest questions they're likely to debate.

"It was a turning point in this outbreak because the truth was finally broken through that shell of so many people saying 'We have it under control, we have it contained, it's not a problem, it's going away,'" Rick Bright, the former director of the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority who earlier this year filed a whistleblower complaint accusing the Trump administration of retaliation in response to his own coronavirus warnings, says in the documentary.

'Disruption to everyday life'

Though the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US numbered about a dozen in mid-February, experts including CDC Director Robert Redfield, Messonnier, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar knew the coronavirus was most likely spreading silently in the US.

The experts decided on February 22 to tell Trump that "we have to become more aggressive about warning the American public that this is where we're headed," Michael Shear, a New York Times White House correspondent, says in the film.

But the president left for India the next day, and, according to Shear, that "right turn" in messaging wasn't something they could tell Trump over the phone. So the experts scheduled a briefing for the day he got back.

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive for a "Namaste Trump" event during Trump's visit to India, at Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium, in Ahmedabad, India, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago
President Donald Trump, Melania Trump, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arriving for an event in Ahmedabad, India, on February 24. REUTERS/Al Drago

But in the few days that followed, wires got crossed, Shear said.

"Nancy thought the green light had been given for that new message to be delivered before briefing the president," he said, adding, "so at her next conference call for reporters, she went to town."

On the morning of February 25, she warned that the coronavirus was inevitably going to spread and could soon lead to a "disruption to everyday life" — including school and office closings.

It was a stark departure from the CDC's previously calm messaging.

"I remember being shocked, thinking, 'Does she realize what she just said?'" Bright said.

'Did you know Nancy Messonnier had scared the s--- out of people?'

Messonnier's statements, according to Bright, were the first to "prepare the psyche of Americans for what we, the scientists, knew was coming."

But they sent the stock market on a downward spiral. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,000 points, then another 900, on consecutive days.

Azar held an afternoon news conference after Messonnier's briefing to try to bring the narrative back under control. But investors were irreversibly spooked, the stock market was sliding, and the president was already furious.

donald trump alex azar
Trump with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar during a coronavirus press briefing at the White House on March 20. Associated Press/Evan Vucci

"By the time Trump lands, the whole thing had spun out of control, and he was livid. He calls Alex Azar, wakes him up screaming, 'What had happened ... did you know Nancy Messonnier had scared the s--- out of people?'" Shear said.

Trump threatened to fire Messonnier, The Wall Street Journal reported.

A shift from CDC to White House briefings

Messonnier wasn't fired, but on February 26, Trump announced the creation of the White House's coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence.

Messonnier was noticeably absent from that event.

"It didn't surprise me, from the moment she said that, that she would be removed from that platform," Bright said.

According to The New York Times, the episode effectively halted efforts to persuade Trump to take decisive action to mitigate the virus' spread. Instead, the CDC was sidelined in favor of Pence's group.

coronavirus task force
Vice President Mike Pence during a briefing on the administration's coronavirus response on March 4. Tasos Katopodis/Getty

After February 25, Messonnier spoke at just four more press briefings. Her last was March 9; she most recently tweeted on March 30.

"Nancy Messonnier told it like it is," Dr. Thomas Frieden, a former director of the CDC, told The New York Times in March. "And she was 100% right, and they silenced the messenger."

Susie Neilson contributed reporting to this story.

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