Many current and former officials told POLITICO that the coronavirus crisis has driven down morale at HHS and its agencies, saying that the round-the-clock nature of the response, unrelenting headlines about the Trump administration’s many fumbles and internal battles over policy have made the health department an especially difficult work environment.
“Those jobs are always hard. Those jobs in a no-win situation are extremely hard. Those jobs in a no-win situation, when there’s sniping and ‘Lord of the Flies’ situations, are impossible,” said a former senior official who left the department in the past year after witnessing feuds that hindered policymaking.
David Mansdoerfer, who served as deputy assistant secretary for health before departing in August 2019 for a job in academia, put it this way: “It’s a tough environment. But a lot of the folks who are leaving now came on early in the administration, and I think they all have great skill sets to add to outside organizations.”
Some officials also have groused that minor mistakes have blossomed into days-long media scandals with little basis in reality, like a recent episode when career CDC officials uploaded draft guidance on how coronavirus spreads in the air before hastily removing it, prompting accusations of political interference. CDC spokespeople said that the guidance was mistakenly posted too soon, and four officials insisted that the speculation of political interference was unfounded — but that it contributed to the unforgiving climate.
“It’s pretty shitty to come to work and be accused of meddling every single time something, somewhere goes wrong, even when no political [appointee] knows about it,” said one official with knowledge of the episode of the botched CDC guidance.