Biden’s new CDC director Rochelle Walensky is taking a hands on approach to the agency’s narrative on the coronavirus pandemic as it faces its biggest test yet: loosening its public safety guidance as the pandemic recedes, while simultaneously trying to prevent infection rates from spiking.
Photo above: In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, photo, Rochelle Walensky speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del. | Susan Walsh, File/AP Photo
According to Politico: The newly installed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had one big request for agency employees at an all-hands meeting in March: Don’t talk to the press without permission. Rochelle Walensky’s remarks caught many CDC scientists and officials off guard. Her boss, President Joe Biden, had campaigned on a promise to take control of the pandemic by letting science lead — a pledge that hinged almost entirely on allowing the nation’s top health experts, including those at the CDC, to speak publicly.
“It was very clear that [Walensky] didn’t want anyone talking to reporters at that time,” a senior CDC official told Politico. “She wants to control the narrative as much as possible.”
The anecdote highlights the extent to which the CDC and its director have struggled to send a clear and unified message on public health measures to fight Covid-19. Their track record so far has been mixed, including an abrupt reversal on mask rules for vaccinated adults after public outcry.
Now the agency faces its biggest test yet: loosening its public safety guidance as the pandemic recedes, while simultaneously trying to prevent infection rates from spiking in undervaccinated communities. Adding to the difficulty, the highly transmissible Delta virus variant is gaining ground across the country.
“It’s very hard to separate the criticism of the agency from what we’re seeing in the continued politicization of the response,” said Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health. “There continues to be this thread of partisanship. Until those political issues are relieved CDC will be in the awkward position of ‘They are going too far’ — or not far enough.”