Header Ads

Biden's new CDC director slams Trump administration for 'muzzling' scientists during the COVID-19 pandemic and promises to be more transparent by taking to Twitter

 The Trump administration 'muzzled' US scientists when they were needed most as the COVID-19 pandemic, claims Dr Rochelle Walensky, President Biden's pick to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Dr Walensky said that it is her responsibility to 'fix that,' she told JAMA editor Dr Howard Bauchner in a Tuesday interview for the journal's podcast. 

The HIV researcher, with no 'on the ground' experience running a public health agency, is inheriting an unprecedented pandemic that has killed 400,000 Americans in less than a year, a CDC that has fumbled at nearly every turn of its response and a disastrous vaccine rollout. 


Chief among the CDC's problems were communication gaffs that left it at odds with the White House or retracting previous advice and replacing it with Trump administration-approved guidance. 

Officials who tried to warn Americans of how dire the pandemic could get, like the CDC's Dr Nancy Messonnier, simply disappeared after angering the Trump administration. 

Communication will be a top priority for Dr Walensky. Ironically, she plans to take a page from former President Trump's book and streamline CDC's public messaging through Twitter and other social media platforms.  

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., to announce President-elect Joe Biden's health care team. Walensky, 51, an infectious-diseases specialist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, is expected to become CDC director after Biden is inaugurated. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., to announce President-elect Joe Biden's health care team. Walensky, 51, an infectious-diseases specialist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, is expected to become CDC director after Biden is inaugurated. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

'Science is now conveyed through Twitter,' Dr Walensky said during the JAMA podcast interview. 

'Science is conveyed on social media, on podcasts and in many different ways, and I think that’s critical.

'We have to have a social media plan for the agency.' 

Until now, CDC's communiques have mostly come in dense reports. In the first month after COVID-19 arrived in the US, the agency held press briefings, but these direct communications between scientists and the public were soon bagged.  

Dr Walensky has been a vocal critic of the US pandemic response response and, especially of the White House's flirtation with 'herd immunity' strategies that suggested having much of the population return to fairly normal life while shielding the rest. 


She has pointed to this as an example of science and scientists being overrun by politics during the Trump administration. 

'They have been diminished. I think they've been muzzled. That science hasn't been heard,' she told Dr Bauchner. 

'This top-tier agency, world renowned, hasn't really been appreciated over the last four years and really markedly over the last year, so I have to fix that.'

CDC has long been considered a global leader in public health, but its performance during the pandemic has tarnished that reputation. 

It started off as Americans would expect: regular, reasonable, but up-front warning about what might be around the bend. 

In February, Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned Americans to brace for the worst - including staying home and shuttering businesses - as COVID-19 began to take hold in the US. 

Dr Walensky says she plans to improve transparency and communication between CDC scientists and the public by leveraging social media

Dr Walensky says she plans to improve transparency and communication between CDC scientists and the public by leveraging social media 

Outgoing CDC director Dr Robert Redfield has both been muzzled himself, when the White House prevented him from testifying before Congress, and has been blamed for failing to stand up to the Trump administration on behalf of scientists (file)

Outgoing CDC director Dr Robert Redfield has both been muzzled himself, when the White House prevented him from testifying before Congress, and has been blamed for failing to stand up to the Trump administration on behalf of scientists (file) 

'We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for the expectation that this could be bad,' she said on a press briefing call. 

She warned, for the first time, that the disruption to Americans' lives  

Markets tumbled, and former president Trump was reportedly frustrated that the call had scared people. 

Counter to Dr Messonnier warnings, he told the American public that everything was gong to be okay.  

Everything was not okay. New York City became the COVID-19 pandemic's global epicenter in a matter of weeks. 

But the CDC went silent, for months. Its regular press calls to update the public on the COVID-19 situation were replaced by Trump or Vice President Mike Pence-led coronavirus task force briefings that sometimes contained little information beyond assurances. 

The CDC had to retract guidance on whether children should be in school, how long coronavirus was infectious and, worst of all, it had to recall its own COVID-19 test, the first developed in the US. 

Its previous director, Dr Robert Redfield had to step out and step up after a relatively quiet tenure, but was reportedly blocked from testifying before Congress by the Trump administration.  

Dr Walensky, a 51-year-old infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, hopes to end the push and pull of political versus public health communications, and modernize the CDC's information systems, which have struggled to keep up with the rapid evolution of the pandemic.  

It's a tall order.  

'I don't know if the CDC is broken or just temporarily injured,' but something must be done to bring it back to health, said Timothy Westmoreland, a Georgetown University law professor focused on public health.

The agency has retained some of its top scientific talent, public health experts say, but it it has a long list of needs. 

Those include new protection from political influence, a comprehensive review of its missteps during the pandemic and more money to beef up basic functions like disease tracking and genetic analysis.

Dr Walensky has not worked at the CDC or at a state or local health department, but has become a respected observer and critic of the response.   

Her targets have included the uneven transmission-prevention measures that were in place last summer and a prominent Trump adviser's endorsement of a 'herd immunity' approach that would let the virus run free.

She acknowledged the weaknesses in her resume during her JAMA interview.

Among President Biden's goals, to which CDC director Dr Walensky will be key, is to update the CDC's efforts to do genomic sequencing and find new variants of  coronavirus

Among President Biden's goals, to which CDC director Dr Walensky will be key, is to update the CDC's efforts to do genomic sequencing and find new variants of  coronavirus

'When people write about me as the selection for this position, they will say, "But she has no on-the-ground public health experience,''' Dr Walenksy said. 

The podcast's host, Dr Bauchner, praised her and claimed she was qualified because of her ability to 'communicate, which is such an important task for the head of the CDC,' he said.

She will succeed Dr Robert Redfield, 69, who came to the CDC with a similar resume as an outsider from academia. 

Redfield kept a low profile during his first two years in office after being appointed by the Trump administration in 2018. 

During his tenure, veteran CDC scientists handled crises such as a deadly national surge in hepatitis A cases among homeless people and illicit drug users in California, and a mysterious spike in severe illnesses in people who vaped electronic cigarettes.

But they paled in comparison to the scale of the pandemic.  

Within weeks of its February stumbles over testing and Dr Messionnier's quickly muted warning, the agency was pushed off stage.  

The CDC 'has been sidelined, has been maligned, has been a punching bag for many politicians in the outgoing administration,' Dr Richard Besser, a former CDC director who now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

'And that has had a detrimental effect on the agency's ability to fulfill its mission.' 

White House officials also took steps to try to control the CDC's scientific reports and the guidance on its website. 

 

For instance, the agency removed guidance that advised limiting church choir activities even though studies had demonstrated the danger of transmission of extended singing indoors. 

The agency also dropped guidance advising that anyone who came into close contact with an infected person should get tested - then re-adopted it after criticism from health experts.

While public health veterans say they do not know everything that happened behind the scenes, they claim that Dr Redfield apparently failed to stand up for agency scientists, declined to contradict Trump and those around him and passively allowed the Trump administration to post its messaging on CDC websites.

'He wasn't willing to resign when it was necessary or to be fired for standing up for principle,' said David Holtgrave, a former CDC staffer who is now dean of the public health school at the State University of New York at Albany. 

CDC has more than moral and communication quandaries to address, however. The agency has been short-staffed and ill-equipped for the scale of COVID-19 in the US since the pandemic began. 

Last week, President Biden said he would ask for $160 billion for vaccinations and other public health programs, including an effort to expand the public health workforce by 100,000 jobs.

Some experts suggest that an administration that values science and increases funding could restore the CDC to preeminence. Biden has pledged to put scientists out front on COVID-19 matters, Dr Besser noted.

'That's something I think will be fixed on Day One,' he said. 

'One of the things that gives me hope is I did not see a large exodus from CDC during this past year. I saw professionals doing their jobs. I saw the mental toll they were taking, but I did not see them giving up.'

1 comment: