CDC director turns to media consultant as Covid-19 messaging frustrations increase


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For months, Walensky has met privately with prominent Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald to improve her communication skills and continues to do so, according to a person familiar with the previously unreported sessions. Walensky will hold the CDC’s first independent media briefing since the summer on Friday after abruptly deciding this week that she wanted to answer questions “head-on”, according to a person familiar with her decision to hold the briefing.

Since taking office, Walensky has strived to improve internal communications and sought to cultivate a better messaging approach, officials say. Still, there remains dissatisfaction among administrative assistants and outside public health experts with some of the ways the CDC has communicated its decisions as the pandemic enters what officials see as a new phase.

At the same time, between Walensky bypassing some of the CDC’s rigorous vetting processes for new guidelines and public criticism, morale at the public health agency is plummeting.

When asked if there was a credibility problem at the CDC on Friday on NBC’s “Today”, Walensky said the agency was following the science.

“We at the CDC are 12,000 people working 24/7 following science, with ever-changing nature, in the midst of a very rapid pandemic,” she said during the one of the many interviews before the briefing. “And we are doing it with our heads down to keep America safe. We will continue to update ourselves. We will continue to improve the way we communicate with the American public. It is a rapidly evolving science.”

CNN has contacted the White House and the CDC for comment.

Frustration with the change of guidance

The latest messaging setback occurred last month when the CDC reduced its recommended isolation period for people with Covid-19 to five days, and recommended people who tested positive should continue to wear masks in public for an additional five days. Confusion ensued, with some outside experts urging the CDC to add a recommendation for a rapid antigen test at the end of the first five days.

Behind the scenes, other federal public health officials have also questioned the decision not to include the tests. Dr Anthony Fauci, the President’s senior medical adviser on Covid-19, and US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy have publicly indicated that clarification is yet to come.

Amid the public backlash, Walensky sought to reassure fellow senior federal health officials, telling Fauci and Murthy that the lack of a testing requirement in the isolation guidelines was not motivated by the nationwide testing shortage, a person familiar with the discussions said.

Instead, she insisted that rapid antigen tests just weren’t a sufficiently reliable indicator of contagiousness, and noted to her colleagues that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not approved. testing for this purpose.

She told CNN: “We actually don’t know how our rapid tests work and how well they predict if you are communicable when the disease is over.”

The explanation did not please FDA officials, who – although they issued a vague statement around the same time about the sensitivity of rapid antigenic testing to Omicron which lacked specific details – feared its comments can cast doubt on the reliability of rapid tests.

“When you run an agency like this, the gravity of what you say is so much heavier than when you just comment on it,” an administration official later told CNN.

Avoid traditional CDC processes

After working on the guidance with his circle of advisers, Walensky called an emergency meeting of CDC’s Covid-19 incident management system officials on the eve of the release of the new guidance to inform them of upcoming guidance, according to the Scientific CDC.

“She forgoes that consultative process that we’ve always had and that kind of gave us the ability to make sure our science was good,” the scientist said.

Meeting officials were asked not to share the new guidelines with state health officials during a weekly call the next day, which came just hours before the CDC issued a statement announcing changes.

“The lack of engagement and consultation on this (new directions) obviously contributed to a lot of the outrage,” the scientist said.

After Walenksy spent a week strongly defending the agency’s decision not to include a rapid test recommendation after five days, the CDC changed course, telling people with access to rapid tests to continue to self-isolate. if they decide to be tested and receive a positive result. results. But the new guidelines did not explicitly recommend that people take a test.

“It became very clear that people were interested in using rapid tests – although not authorized for this purpose – for this purpose after their period of isolation was over. And because there was an interest in using them. for this reason, we then provided advice on how they should be used, ”Walensky told CNN during a coronavirus briefing on Wednesday.

The latest update also urged people coming out of shortened five-day solitary confinement to avoid travel for five more days and not to eat out.

These updates only emerged after Walensky and his team tasked experts at the CDC to turn the press release announcing the changes into formal public health guidelines, a process that would usually occur before a press release.

The CDC’s back and forth on testing after five days of isolation has not gone well in the medical community.

“Almost two years after the start of this pandemic, with an increase in omicron cases across the country, the American people should be able to count on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for clear, specific and accurate advice. opportune times to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Instead, the new recommendations on quarantine and isolation are not only confusing, but also risk spreading the virus further, ”said the American Medical Association in a press release.

“They think too much about their message”

In some ways, the disconnect with the CDC is a perpetual one between an inherently political operation and one led by public health experts.

Current and former senior administration officials have said the White House is frustrated with the CDC for its messages on public health guidelines, even though they recognize that the decisions the agency makes are sound. Meanwhile, some scientists at the CDC feel that the new directions Walensky has implemented are insufficiently guided by science and over-consider political and economic considerations.

Yet the White House has sought to stick with its hands-off CDC approach, seeking to distinguish it from the previous administration and avoid any impression that it is influencing public health measures led by government scientists. .

“I think they’re way too cautious and overthinking their posts,” a former senior administration official Biden said of the CDC. “They are smart people and they are guilty of just being in a bubble a little bit and overthinking things.”

While the CDC’s latest guidance on segregation is the clearest example of the agency’s public messaging problems, former officials said previous CDC messages – including on masks – had been a source of friction and frustration within the White House.

“They make isolated decisions with the agency – or even within a small group within the agency – and then wait until the last minute to tell everyone it’s happening, so they rush off. without getting reasonable feedback from people who could help solve real problems, ”an administration official told CNN, referring to other federal health agencies.

In May, Walensky said people who were fully vaccinated could stop wearing masks indoors, reversing the trend a few months later when new information showed that even those with all the recommended vaccines can still transmit the virus.

The White House was also forced to explain Walensky’s comments in February that teachers did not need to be fully immunized for schools to reopen; a day later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Walensky was speaking in a personal capacity.

White House officials have been reluctant to blame Walensky directly, instead pointing to long-standing institutional problems at the CDC and an overly cautious approach by scientists, which they say leads to overly complicated or incomplete public health guidance. .

“With the White House frustrated with the CDC, it’s like there’s sand on a beach,” the former official said. “It’s an age-old thing.”

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