In a candid interview-format presentation Thursday at her alma mater, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky made a number of significant admissions about her agency’s messaging and handling of data during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, affirming the concerns of many health scientists who have been censored and maligned over the past two years as purveyors of “misinformation.”
She admitted, among other things, in her remarks at the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis that:
- The CDC exercised “too little caution and too much optimism” about the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing infection, transmission and deaths.
- She was “proud of our ability to get data out,” describing a new, “modern” data assimilation and analysis system that provided crucial information on vaccine effectiveness to health care officials and the public about every 48 hours. The comment is significant in light of the recent admission of unnamed CDC officials to the New York Times that the agency has withheld most of its data regarding COVID-19 — presumably including data regarding the adverse effects of vaccines — for fear it would be misinterpreted by critics. And she still has not fulfilled her promise to a senator on Jan. 11 to provide “the data” on vaccine-related deaths.
- When she declared during the pandemic that the CDC would “lead with the science,” the public took that as a statement that science is “foolproof.” But science isn’t “black and white,” Walensky acknowledged Thursday. It’s “gray,” and “sometimes it takes months and years to actually find out the answer.” Johns Hopkins University professor Dr. Marty Makary said recently the CDC has been “using science as political propaganda.”
- The CDC and establishment media emphasized the data regarding cases and deaths. But in future pandemics, the unintended impacts of pandemic mitigation need to be taken into account, Walensky said, such as opioid deaths, mental health challenges, cancer screenings and deferred elective surgeries. That was the message of many medical scientists, including those behind the “Great Barrington Declaration,” who were targeted and maligned by National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins as “fringe epidemiologists.”
‘Proud of our ability to get data out’
At the event Thursday, Walensky was interviewed by Dr. William G. Powderly, the co-director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University.
Campbell asked Walensky what the CDC got right, that will be helpful in the future.
She touted the delivery of 550 million shots and said she was “proud of our ability to get data out.”
The CDC, Walensky said, needed to provide “vaccine effectiveness data as fast as we can have it.”
“Because everybody wants to know how long this vaccine is working and is it waning,” she said.
Over the past year, she said data on effectiveness was published, on average, every 48 hours, “which is kind of extraordinary.”
Walensky described a new “pedal to the metal” system of data assimilation and analysis that enables the CDC to link “vaccine immunization data to testing data … to death data.”
“And because of that we can now, within four weeks, look at vaccine effectiveness for cases and deaths for two-thirds of America,” she said.
“We can stratify by age, we can stratify by date of vaccine, we can stratify by which vaccine you got.”
‘Too little caution and too much optimism’
Asked where the CDC could improve, she pointed to her statement when the vaccines were rolled out that they would be “95% effective.”
“So many of us wanted it to be helpful, so many of us wanted to say, ‘OK, this is our ticket out, we’re done,'” Walensky said.
“So, I think we had perhaps too little caution and too much optimism for some good things that came our way. I really do,” she said.
“Nobody,” Walensky claimed, said the vaccines “will wear off.”
“Nobody said, ‘Well, what if the next variant — it’s not as potent against the next variant.'”
‘Science is gray’
Another lesson, she said, arises from how she communicated the nature of science.
“I have frequently said we’re going to lead with the science, science is going to be the foundation of everything we do. That is entirely true,” Walensky began.
“I think public heard that as the science is foolproof. Science is black and white. Science is immediate, and we get the answer and we make a decision based on the answer.”
The truth, she said is “science is gray.”
“And science is not always immediate. And sometimes it takes months and years to actually find out the answer. But you have to make decisions in a pandemic before you have that answer.”
Campbell asked Walensky how best to prepare for future pandemics.
“I think our data sources need to be key,” she said.
“I think we need to be able to have a full line of sight, almost a 30,000 foot view of all of the respiratory viruses that could potentially lead to this.”
‘We’re not telling that as much’
She discussed the balancing of the risks from COVID-19 with the risks from mitigation efforts.
She noted that in newscasts, the number of cases and deaths was displayed on TV screens.
But she emphasized that that there are “so many other things we are counting that don’t make the headlines,” such as “opioid deaths, mental health challenges,” cancer screenings, deferred elective surgeries
“We’re not telling that as much. I think we will be telling that in the future.”
See Walensky’s comments at Washington University on CDC data and her agency’s response to COVID-19: