CDC Director Walks Tightrope on Pandemic Messages

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle WalenskyRochelle Walensky, CDC Director Walks Tightrope on Pandemic Messages Sunday Show Preview: Democrats Watch Passage of Infrastructure Bill; Health Experts Warn of Fourth Wave of Coronavirus Overnight Medical Care: CDC Says Fully Vaccinated People Can Travel Safely | Biden laments those who act like COVID-19 is fighting | Will vaccine passports be the biggest campaign theme of 2022? PLUS It is in a delicate position as it seeks to balance the optimism of the rise in vaccines with the reality that the United States is still in the grip of a deadly pandemic.

Walensky began the CDC’s work with a reputation as a smart communicator, tasked with salvaging the reputation of an agency that took a beating under the Trump administration.

“When I started at the CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to them: I would tell them the truth, even if it wasn’t the news we wanted to hear,” Walensky told reporters recently.

Walensky’s expertise is in HIV research, like his predecessor. Robert RedfieldRobert Redfield CDC Director Walks Tightrope on Pandemic Messages Biologist Bret Weinstein Says COVID-19 Likely Came from a Laboratory CDC Must Rescind Misguided Policy Linking Asylum Seekers to COVID MOREBefore being appointed to head the CDC, she was chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.

While his former colleagues say Walensky is a perfect fit for the CDC job, his skills are now being put to the test as he faces criticism for being too negative and too hopeful.

“It’s a pretty compelling and clear communicator, but it’s a challenging set of messages to try to get across,” said Chris Beyrer, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Public health messages during a global pandemic are quite complicated, but experts say this particular time is especially difficult.

After weeks of decline and then stagnation, the rate of coronavirus infections has started to climb once again in much of the country. Cases were up about 12 percent nationally compared to the previous week, averaging about 62,000 cases per day, according to the CDC.

At the same time, nearly 100 million Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Many states are expanding vaccine eligibility, in some cases to all adults, and federal health officials say there will be enough supply for everyone to get vaccinated by the end of May.

Walensky tried to emphasize both aspects this week when he launched an emotional appeal to the public.

“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential from where we are, and so many reasons for hope. But right now I’m scared,” Walensky said, adding that he had a “sense of impending doom.” if people continue to ignore public health precautions.

However, almost in the next breath, he spoke about a “tremendously encouraging” new study showing that vaccinated people were 90 percent protected against infection, meaning they are at extremely low risk of spreading the virus.

While that may seem like a mixed message, experts say it accurately reflects not only where things are right now, but also how the country has been reacting to the virus over the past year.

“Whiplash is a true reflection of how we are all experiencing the epidemic and the response to it. So I would rather have her be honest about it, and have others be honest about it, than give people something they want … make them feel better, “said Judith Auerbach, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, school of medicine.

Auerbach, who previously worked with Walensky on HIV research, praised the director’s bluntness, who said he had been absent from the agency’s leadership during the Trump administration.

“She’s being really honest about her own emotions. That’s hard for a Fed to do and get away with,” Auerbach said. “The science that says we must all be, in fact, pretty scared because we’re in this race between vaccines … versus the emergence of these variants, and she felt it on a visceral level, and conveyed that in a way that I thought which was quite revealing. “

Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and former director of media relations for the CDC, said Walensky’s outspokenness helps establish credibility.

“She has accepted the fact that credibility comes from being transparent, honest and genuine about her fears and concerns,” Nowak said.

The CDC declined to make Walensky available for an interview, but in a statement to The Hill, an agency spokesperson said each communication reflects the latest in science and epidemiology.

“Sometimes the moments must balance the hope that we will emerge from the pandemic with the reality that we are not yet out of it,” the spokesman said.

“We recognize the challenge of conveying the hope and promise that vaccines offer with the reality that cases and deaths are on the rise. While we are sending the critical message that people cannot and should not compromise on their prevention measures, We remain very optimistic about what the future will hold for a fully vaccinated audience. “

On Friday, Walensky was again criticized for her messages. In an updated guide, the CDC said it is safe to travel for people who have been fully vaccinated.

But Walensky took a warning tone, saying the CDC still recommends that anyone, vaccinated or not, avoid nonessential travel because the number of infections is so high.

“We know that we have a growing number of cases right now,” Walensky said during a briefing at the White House. “I would advocate against travel in general in general. Our guide does not say anything about recommending or not recommending travel to fully vaccinated people. Our guide talks about the safety of doing so.”

Nowak said part of what makes public health messages so difficult is the fact that science doesn’t always deal in absolute terms, and the general public doesn’t do well with nuance.

“Often times, people don’t want to hear nuances; they want advice and guidance to be stable. They get frustrated with changes, or when it seems to be contradictory. They also get frustrated if they don’t match their daily life experiences,” he said. Nowak.

With the travel guide, Walensky tried to explain the balance he was trying to achieve and asked the audience for patience and understanding.

“I want to recognize today that providing guidance in the midst of a changing pandemic and its changing science is complex,” Walensky said.

“Science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely, and it is important for us to provide that guidance, even in the context of an increase in cases. At the same time, we must balance science with the fact that most Americans are not fully vaccinated yet, which is likely contributing to our increase in cases, “he said.

Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has known Walensky for decades, said she believes the CDC director is aware that she cannot escape criticism, especially when so many people are fatigued. pandemic.

If the CDC is too strict and refuses to endorse relatively normal behavior, especially after being vaccinated, you could run the risk of people refusing to get the vaccine, Kates said.

But if the agency gives an overly optimistic picture, more people could act as if the pandemic is over and risk further spread of the virus.

“It is incumbent on public officials to always be aware that their words are being heard and may be taken out of context, or may be difficult for people to understand,” Kates said. “So I think Dr. Walensky is a great communicator, but it doesn’t mean that this is always easy to do and that balance is always easy.


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