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What's Really Behind Criticism of CDC Director's Hopeful COVID-19 Messaging? Is She Telling the Truth Too Soon?

AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is getting a dose of media criticism for her “messaging.” It appears some in the health bureaucracy may be concerned she is feeding skepticism about the narrative by being truthful and then having to “backtrack” when the preferred politics of the administration get in the way. According to NBC News:

At a particularly crucial juncture in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a messaging problem.

The CDC and its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, have been the subjects of growing criticism over statements and guidance that have been revised or walked back.

The best example of the messaging problem? Early in her tenure, Walensky made the mistake of saying that teachers did not require complete vaccination before they can safely return to school.

In the press briefing the next day, press secretary Jen Psaki said that Walensky was not speaking in her official capacity, despite the fact that she was speaking on video from the CDC. Psaki then said that the CDC would release official guidance for school reopenings in a few days, which would be the official stance. Yet, at the time,  65% of schools in the nation reported being open for in-person instruction or a digital and in-person hybrid without significant spread within schools. Several studies in the U.S. and globally demonstrated that what Walensky said was demonstrably true.

Still, when the CDC released guidelines, the only place in the country that should have had schools open for in-person instruction was International Falls, Minnesota. The reversal surprised many commentators as President Biden had said in early December 2020:

“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Biden said in a speech on Dec. 8. “If Congress provides the funding we need to protect students, educators, and staff; if states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all will follow, then my team will work to say that a majority of our schools can be opened by the end of my first 100 days.”

Psaki also came out and clarified what the administration’s reopening goal was to be by day 100. She defined it as having 50% of schools having some in-person instruction, which meant one day a week. On its face, this clarification was absurd, since schools across the nation had surpassed this goal by mid-February. Even CNN’s Jake Tapper correctly identified the conflict in a Twitter thread:

Again, there is conflict between the health officials and the teachers’ unions, and I have seen no evidence the Biden White House is willing to say or do anything to side with health officials when they are in conflict.

Biden’s funding request had also been met. Schools had received billions in funding COVID relief packages during the previous administration, and many had returned to a form of in-person learning with demonstrably positive results. In Florida, which opened schools to in-person learning in the fall, the Florida K-12 House budget writer, Representative Randy Fine, noted in early February:

“Our schools have been drowning in federal funding. Covid, it turns out, is the greatest booster for K-12 education in the history of public education.”

Fine went on to note that the proposed spending has some good ideas, but not all are COVID-19 related:

Fine poked holes in the agency’s CARES Act spending plan, which includes $8 million for free SAT/ACT testing, $5 million for reading coaches and $20 million to cement the state’s new reading curriculum.

“The vast majority of these things sound like good ideas that aren’t necessarily Covid response ideas,” Fine said.

Essentially, the administration was using additional funding for schools as a pretext for the American Rescue Plan’s passage, assuming the teachers’ unions would relent when Congress secured additional funding. They did not. Several unionized districts in large urban areas are still saying ‘maybe in the fall of 2021.’

More recently, Walensky shared the CDC’s finding that the COVID-19 vaccine prevents transmission in 90% of cases in an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC:

Our data from the CDC today suggests that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick. And that it’s not just in the clinical trials, it’s also in real-world data.

The CDC immediately walked this statement back. Despite successful reopenings in Texas and Mississippi, the administration wants to pass a large “infrastructure” bill that uses the impact of the pandemic on employment to justify massive investments in a government jobs program. That claim is also absurd on its face. The unemployment rate for March 2021 was 6.0%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This rate is 2.1% higher than before the forced pandemic shutdowns but 8.7% lower than the pandemic high of 14.7% in April of 2020.

It is also 1.7% lower than when Barack Obama and Joe Biden were reelected in 2012. No massive jobs program was on the table then to continue the most sluggish economic recovery in history. Now, the country is on a natural rebound from a government-induced recession. So, people must be discouraged from feeling confident returning to regular activity, like taking a vacation, or the recovery will become more apparent. The government jobs plan has nearly every facet of the Green New Deal embedded in it. So Walensky must be contradicted.

There is not a problem with Walensky’s messaging. There is a problem with her timing. It interferes with the pretext for massive spending bills that tuck in a bunch of paybacks to Democrat donors, like paying off multi-employer union pension plans that were underwater. The media starting to present this conflict between the message and the politics as a problem does not bode well for Walensky’s future as CDC director.