Rochelle P. Walensky, the Director of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), assumed her position on Jan. 20, 2021, under the Biden Administration. With an impressive resume, she is also the Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR, part of the NIH). From 2017 to 2020, Walensky was the Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School from 2012-2020. Having served as the past chair of the National Insitute of Health (NIH) Office of Aids Research and Advisory Council, her connection with infectious diseases and scientific research on HIV/Aids policy spans decades. According to an article in The Lancet, one of her first priorities as CDC Director will be to ensure her staff "will feel unmuzzled, and feel like science is leading the way again."
However, in a Senate hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, many lawmakers, including Republican Senators Susan Collins and Bill Cassidy, concluded Dr. Walensky—who defended her agency's guidance on masks and restrictions—and the CDC's current 'unmuzzled' scientific COVID-19 guidance, with its strict and conflicting directives, is undermining the public's confidence. At one point in the hearing, a frustrated Cassidy suggested the American people "are beginning to disregard what you say is true," telling Walensky:
"The American people have just lost -- just lost patience with us, with you guys. I would ask you to be aware of their frustrations and get a little real-time into updating these things. I am sorry to be so frustrated."
Senator Collins gave Dr. Walensky (who has authored over 300 scientific publications) three examples of her agency's conflicting and confusing guidance, which Collins stated has been at odds with or slow to catch up with the science and has "undermined public confidence and contradicts the scientific guidance of many experts." In a press release following the hearing, Sen. Collins referenced the following examples of the CDC not following proper procedures in issuing COVID-19 guidance:
- Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that the American Federation of Teachers, a powerful teachers union, successfully secured changes verbatim in draft guidance on school reopenings.
- This morning, a New York Times article indicated that the CDC’s announcement that “less than 10 percent” of COVID-19 transmissions occurred outdoors was highly inflated, and the actual number could be below 0.1 percent.
- Last month, the CDC issued strict guidance for summer camps that was labeled "unfairly draconian" by the editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.
Before joining the CDC, in a Nov. 19, 2020, research article for Project HOPE's Health Affairs, titled "Clinical Outcomes Of A COVID-19 Vaccine: Implementation Over Efficacy," Dr. Walensky determined—using a mathematical simulation of vaccination—that factors related to the implementation of a COVID-19 vaccination program will contribute more to the program's success than the efficacy of the vaccine as defined in clinical trials.
The study, which was shared in a press release by Walensky's MGH, concluded that the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines would be "heavily influenced by infrastructure, as well as public attitudes and behaviors," emphasizing that more must be done to advance the public's confidence in vaccines and willingness to continue practices that slow the spread of the virus. The statement continued, adding that:
"The proportion of infections a vaccine is able to avert is directly related to the public's willingness to engage in mitigation behaviors. Moreover, powerful public messages and on-the-ground implementation strategies at the local level are also necessary to help overcome skepticism about vaccines, especially in underserved populations."
Reiterating the consequence of the public's role in keeping the infection rate low by wearing masks and social distancing, critical factors of Walensky's study are the public's trust in immunization, its continued adherence to practices that slow the spread of COVID-19, as well as its willingness to be immunized. Walensky commented:
"If I have a cup of water, I can put out a stove fire. But I can't put out a forest fire, even if that water is 100% potent. We'll get out of this faster if you give the vaccine less work to do."
Funding for the group's modeling study on COVID-19 vaccinations was provided through a grant from the NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse. Remarkably, since 2008, the federally funded Drug Abuse and Addiction Research Program has given almost $12 billion in assistance to grant recipients. Study co-author A. David Paltiel reported that additional funding and compensation for the research study came from the NIH, CDC, and Brigham and Woman's Hospital. Walensky also reported additional research funding from the NIH, CNN (a branch of the NIH), and an MGH Research Scholars Award.
According to its website, the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs—whose stated audience includes government and health leaders and policymakers in the U.S. and worldwide—is the leading journal of health policy thought and research. The website boasts that "U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts cited the journal in his decision regarding the Affordable Care Act. In addition, Health Affairs is frequently cited by national media, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, network television and radio, and NPR."
On Mar. 29, with COVID-19 deaths allegedly inching upwards, Dr. Walensky made headlines when, according to a MedPage Today summary of her CDC briefing, the Director "began her usual COVID-19 status update, looking bored, even annoyed as she repeated her oft-used phrase, 'concerning trends in the data.'" Walenksy urged elected officials, faith-based, community leaders, and "other influencers" to "sound the alarm," noting that inaction regarding combating the virus isn't an option. With worry in her voice, Walensky continued:
"I'm going to lose the script and I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom. We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope. But right now, I'm scared."
Summarizing Walensky's briefing, MedPage Today continued illustrating Walensky's sympathy towards those "wanting to be done" with the pandemic. While looking directly into the camera, Walensky, a regular contributor to CNN, told the American public she was speaking "not only as your CDC Director but as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, to ask you to just please hold on a little while longer. We are just almost there, but not quite yet. And so I'm asking you to just hold on a little longer, to get vaccinated when you can. So that all of those people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends."
An advisor to the World Health Organization and UNAIDS (a partner to both the NIH and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Walensky then reminded Americans that, to prevent a fourth surge, we must unite together for our nation's health. Stressing again the importance of getting vaccinated, she declared "we are not powerless" and can change the virus trajectory:
"But it will take all of us recommitting to following the public health prevention strategies consistently while we work to get the American public vaccinated."