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WASHINGTON — For the first time in six months, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky held a solo press briefing on the coronavirus pandemic on Friday.
“I anticipate this will be the first of many briefings,” Walensky said, in what may have been the most eye-raising statement during an event that otherwise included routine pandemic updates. As Walensky surely knows, the move may be interpreted as an effort to assert her independence from other top advisers in the Biden administration.
Walensky held only two independent briefings in 2021 — one in February regarding school reopenings and the other in July, as the Delta surge was beginning — though, as she noted on Friday, she has addressed the media some 80 times as a member of the White House COVID-19 response team, which holds briefings at least once per week.
Walensky’s struggles show that science and politics remain locked in a tumultuous marriage as the pandemic enters its third year.
Members of the Biden team, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, have pushed back on Walensky's shortened isolation guidelines for people with COVID-19. “It may not have been as communicated as well by the CDC” as it could have been, Fauci said of the guidelines, which he and others fear could have people who are still infectious reentering society and spreading the coronavirus.
Earlier, Walensky disagreed with some of her own advisers on booster shots, pushing for somewhat broader eligibility. The back-and-forth on masks (off in May, back on by July) also caused confusion. And her admission of feeling “impending doom” last March about a new spring surge that ultimately did not materialize has been held up by conservative critics of the administration as fearmongering.
“We are in an unprecedented time,” Walensky said on Friday, in what could have been either an irrefutable observation or a plea for patience with her agency’s response to an evolving pathogen that has frustrated epidemiologists the world over.
Walensky had never served in government before joining the Biden administration from the Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was the chief of the infectious diseases department and a leading HIV/AIDS researcher. Helming the CDC, however, is as much about politics and management as it is about science. Walensky has 15,000 employees, while her own boss is the president of the United States (technically, it is Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, but he has no medical expertise and has been largely absent from the Biden administration’s pandemic response). Distance works against Walensky too: whereas Fauci has near-daily access to Biden, Walensky is in CDC headquarters in Atlanta. Her family remains in Boston.
“I’ve seen more of Dr. Fauci than my wife,” Biden joked last month. The two men are longtime Washingtonians who share a Catholic faith; the president has shown little evidence of a warm rapport with the much younger, Ivy League-trained Walensky.
Fauci has long been a target of conservatives, but Walensky has also emerged as a polarizing figure — and not just for right-wingers. Earlier this week, several leading advisers to the Biden transition (including some who surely wanted the job Walensky got) went public with their criticisms of her.
“Where the messaging gets muddled is where it is unclear what is driving the decision,” Dr. Celine R. Gounder, one of those transition advisers, told the New York Times this week in an article chronicling the frustrations with Walensky. Much of that confusion has to do with the CDC’s new guidelines on when a person who had been ill with COVID-19 can exit isolation. The guidelines don’t include a need to test negative before resuming ordinary activities, which some believe is dangerous advice.
“I don’t pretend to know the inside baseball, but to me Dr. Walensky is not getting the help she needs to fix the epic fails at CDC,” Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine, tweeted on Friday.
“[Senior administration officials] say she bypassed typical clearance” in making decisions, one Washington health policy expert with ties to the Biden administration told Yahoo News. “And that’s a no-no.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve professional relationships, the health expert said of Walensky that “the real damage is that her actions as an individual have unfortunately tarnished the reputation of the CDC.”
In many ways, Walensky finds herself in a similar situation as Dr. Robert Redfield, who served as CDC director for former President Donald Trump and found himself sidelined for voicing opinions the president disagreed with. Trump was particularly incensed after Redfield said, in September 2020, that masks work better than vaccines.
Walensky is clearly aware of the challenges before her. CNN reported on Friday that she has been working with Mandy Grunwald, a top Democratic adviser, to sharpen her message. But with the pandemic moving as rapidly as it has, it is almost impossible for messaging — no matter how competent — to stay abreast of the latest science. In other words, some of the frustration directed at Walensky may be frustration with the virus itself.
Still, the feeling that she has struggled with clarity and consistency remains. “The C.D.C. Is Hoping You’ll Figure Covid Out on Your Own,” went a New York Times headline earlier this week.
All this comes as Biden’s first year in office comes to what has largely been regarded as an inauspicious conclusion, in large part because the promise to vanquish the coronavirus remains unrealized. That promise was predicated on another: that “listening to the science” was the certain path to victory, in contrast to Trump’s haphazard approach. The science, however, can sound remarkably cacophonous, as the case of Walensky and her critics appears to show.