As Covid-19 tore through the United States in the spring, a senior official in the Trump administration quietly reinforced a set of guidelines that prevented journalists from getting inside all but a handful of hospitals at the front line of the pandemic. The guidelines, citing the medical privacy law known as HIPAA, suggested a nearly impossible standard: Before letting journalists inside Covid-19 wards, hospitals needed prior permission from not only the specific patients the journalists would interview, but also other patients whose names or identities would be accessible.
The onerous guidelines were issued on May 5 by Roger Severino, who worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation before Donald Trump appointed him to direct the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. The guidelines made it extremely difficult for hospitals to give photographers the opportunity to collect visual evidence of the pandemic’s severity. By tightening the circulation of disturbing images, the guidelines fulfilled, intentionally or not, a key Trump administration goal: keeping public attention away from the death toll, which has surpassed 300,000 souls.