Since the early days of her time as Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky has made comments and claims over Covid-19 guidance that her own agency, and sometimes the White House, have walked back or toned down.
While some of Walensky’s comments might be explained by the gap between more conversational language and official written recommendations, the CDC under President Joe Biden has been criticized for its guidance in the past — for either being too conservative or too lenient. Thus, the whiplash from Walensky’s comments and the subsequent clarifications and revisions might help explain a lack of public confidence that exists among Americans toward the agency.
Vaccinated people spreading Covid
Most recently, Walensky told a Senate committee Wednesday that data now shows fully vaccinated individuals can’t pass Covid-19 to other people.
“Data have emerged again that [demonstrate] that even if you were to get infected during post vaccination that you can’t give it to anyone else,” Walensky said in response to a question about the new CDC guidance for vaccinated people and masks.
The CDC’s website, however, continues to say that vaccines only “reduce the risk of people spreading COVID-19” not that people “can’t” spread it post-vaccination. The CDC did not respond to CNN’s request for clarification.
With the confusion and concern by some over the CDC’s new guidance that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most circumstances, the level of likelihood that a vaccinated person might still be able to spread Covid-19 remains a key question for many Americans. Experts suggest it’s incredibly rare, though not entirely impossible. Walensky spoke in more general terms on Wednesday and perhaps created more confusion in doing so.
This is not the first time Walensky has used less precise language than the CDC on whether vaccinated people can spread Covid-19.
On March 29, Walensky told MSNBC that “Our data from the CDC today suggests that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick.”
“(A)nd that it’s not just in the clinical trials,” the director added, “but it’s also in real world data.”
Three days later, on April 1, a CDC spokesperson seemingly walked back the director’s comments, telling The New York Times “Dr. Walensky spoke broadly during this interview” adding that “It’s possible that some people who are fully vaccinated could get Covid-19. The evidence isn’t clear whether they can spread the virus to others. We are continuing to evaluate the evidence.”
On April 27 the CDC updated its guidance for people who are fully vaccinated, saying those individuals can now unmask at small outdoor gatherings and when dining outside with friends from multiple households. The agency still says fully vaccinated people should avoid large indoor gatherings and wear a mask at crowded, outdoor events.
Covid vaccine for pregnant people
Another point of contradiction and confusion occurred when Walensky seemed to make a new announcement on CDC guidance for pregnant people during a White House Covid-19 briefing on April 23.
The “CDC recommends that pregnant people receive the Covid-19 vaccine,” Walensky said. CDC guidance, however, does not recommend that pregnant people receive the vaccine, instead it says that they “can” get the vaccine and says there is limited data on pregnant people and the vaccines.
The comment came after a study from the CDC found no safety concerns among a group of pregnant people who had received the Pfizer or Moderna Covid-19 vaccine during their third trimester.
“We know that this is a deeply personal decision,” Walensky continued, “and I encourage people to talk to their doctors or primary care providers to determine what is best for them and for their baby.”
As CNN noted at the time, the CDC guidance had not changed to match Walensky’s recommendation. The agency’s website currently says those pregnant “can receive a COVID-19 vaccine” but stops short of recommending pregnant people get vaccinated, as Walensky said.
After reaching out to the CDC several times for further clarification, the CDC told CNN in an email on April 27, “pregnant people are eligible and can receive a Covid-19 vaccine, which has always been and remains CDC’s recommendation.” The agency did not directly address Walensky’s comment.
“Additional follow-up is needed, including follow up of those vaccinated in the first and second trimester of pregnancy; however, these preliminary findings are reassuring,” the email said.
During the heated debate earlier this year over reopening schools for in-person learning, Walensky made news when she said in a press briefing on February 3 that data suggested schools could reopen safely and do so without teachers needing to be vaccinated.
“I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen,” she said, “and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”
The next day the White House pushed aside the director’s comments.
When asked about Walensky’s remarks, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the director “spoke to this in her personal capacity.”
“Obviously, she’s the head of the CDC, but we’re going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country,” Psaki said.
The Biden administration has pushed for teachers to receive the vaccine but has not recommended it as a requirement before returning to in-person learning.
The CDC has faced enormous pressure since the start of the pandemic, both politically and publicly, with each step being scrutinized by people across the political spectrum. As the pandemic has started into its second year, the agency is clearly still struggling to provide clear guidance to battle the virus.