Departing CDC Director Warns of Politicized Science

From a Wall Street Journal story by Sarah Toy headlined “Departing CDC Director Rochelle Walensky Warns of Politicized Science”:

Dr. Rochelle Walensky has a warning for the American people: Be on guard against misinformation and the politicization of science.

In one of her final interviews as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Walensky said that she wants Americans to make health decisions based on “their own risk assessment and their own personal risks, but not through politics,” she said.

Political partisanship has, in many ways, defined Walensky’s tenure as CDC director. People on the right were more likely to push back against the agency’s pandemic guidance on quarantines, distancing and masking, compared with those on the left, while Democrats were more likely to be vaccinated than Republicans, according to polls. Political partisanship was a stronger national predictor of Covid-19 vaccination than any other demographic factor, according to KFF, formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Walensky said that public health shouldn’t fall along partisan lines. “Some of our biggest divides were based on jurisdictions and how they voted,” Walensky said of Covid-19 vaccination rates.

Critics have contended that the CDC itself is politicized, that its recommendations and policies were influenced by politics and that it gave conflicting recommendations to the public. About a quarter of Americans said they lacked trust in the CDC’s health recommendations, according to a 2022 survey of around 4,200 people published in the journal Health Affairs earlier this year.

Walensky acknowledged missteps in communicating during the pandemic, such as not making it clear that the agency’s guidance could change as the pandemic evolved. Some Biden administration officials had said that the CDC’s explanations of new and amended guidelines were sometimes hard to grasp.

Walensky said she found it difficult to balance health messaging for the scientific community and the general public. “We had to do both, at the same time, in the same 90-second sound bites,” she said.

Before the pandemic, the CDC primarily advised state and local health officials, awarded grants and published scientific studies and data. It didn’t have day-to-day interactions with the public, said Brian Castrucci, president and chief executive officer of the de Beaumont Foundation, a nonpartisan, philanthropic organization focused on public health. A lot of the CDC’s problems stemmed from being thrust into a role it had never taken on before, as well as a lack of public-health infrastructure on the state and local level, he said.

Castrucci said that the CDC is inherently political because its director is chosen by the president. At the same time, he said, it was an easy scapegoat for political leaders during the pandemic because it was a relatively unknown entity to Americans.

“It was this nameless, faceless agency to the public,” he said.

Walensky contends that the CDC has a plan that would help it regain trust and forestall misinformation by taking a defensive approach to public-health messaging. That includes brainstorming potential avenues of misinformation before releasing public-health reports, and making clear to media outlets what details could be misconstrued, she said. It is a process Walensky calls “prebunking.”

Earlier this year when a Chilean case of H5N1, commonly known as bird flu, was found to have a new genetic mutation, the CDC reasoned that the general public might assume the virus was now more infectious to people, even though it wasn’t, Walensky said.

“We spent a lot of time and energy ahead of the release of the genomic sequence talking to health reporters so that they could put out there the right information—what the mutation meant—so that there would be no space for missing information when it was released,” she said.

The agency is also working on making recommendations plainer and simpler for the general public.

She hopes Americans will also better fact-check the information they receive, given the high levels of politicization and misinformation in health and science. She encouraged people to check things they are hearing with other trusted sources, such as academic institutions or societies and their physicians.

“People will say, ‘Well, we don’t trust the federal government or we don’t trust this agency.’ My response is, ‘OK, then verify,’ ” she said. “Go triangulate your resources and see where you can find trust in other places.”

Along with the coronavirus pandemic, Walensky also led the agency through the 2022 mpox outbreak and an unusually early and virulent season for respiratory viruses including the flu and RSV last year.

Walenksy has acknowledged that the CDC’s performance during the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t reliably meet expectations. In January, she announced a restructuring of the agency to shift the CDC’s academic-focused culture to concentrate more on preparedness and response. The agency has often been criticized for being too slow in collecting, processing and releasing data.

Under Walensky’s leadership, the agency has placed a renewed focus on modernizing its data-collection infrastructure and advocated for additional funding and more authority on mandating data collection from states.

In light of these initiatives, Walensky’s announcement that she would be stepping down at the end of June took some by surprise. Walenksy said it was clear to her that the CDC’s projects would need to span numerous directors and administrations.

“This felt like the right time to pass that baton to somebody with new energy, who hadn’t felt the heaviness of this position for the prior two and a half years,” she said. Dr. Mandy Cohen, former North Carolina health secretary, will succeed her.

As for Walensky’s future plans, she said, “I have intentionally left the next chapter blank.” She said she would focus on spending time with her family and take some time to decide what she will take on next.

Although the Covid-19 public-health emergency has ended, Walensky said the U.S. isn’t well-prepared for another pandemic. Public health needs more funding and better infrastructure, she said.

“It’s been raining infectious diseases since the day I got here,” she said. “We’re better than we were, and we’re not where we need to be.”

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