Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky finds herself in a delicate position as she seeks to balance the optimism of increasing vaccinations with the reality that the U.S. is still very much in the grip of a deadly pandemic.
Walensky started the CDC job with a reputation as a savvy communicator, tasked with salvaging the reputation of an agency that took a beating under the Trump administration.
“When I first started at CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth, even if it was not the news we wanted to hear,” Walensky told reporters recently.
Walensky’s expertise is in HIV research, like her predecessor Robert Redfield, and before being appointed to lead the CDC, she was head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.
While former colleagues say Walensky is the perfect fit for the CDC post, her skills are now being put to the test as she faces criticism for being both too negative and too hopeful.
“She is quite a compelling and clear communicator, but it’s a challenging set of messages to try and get out there,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Public health messaging during a global pandemic is complicated enough, but experts say this particular moment is especially difficult.
After weeks of decline and then stagnation, the rate of coronavirus infections has once again started to climb across much of the country. Cases are up about 12 percent nationally compared with the previous week, averaging around 62,000 cases per day, according to the CDC.
At the same time, nearly 100 million Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Many states are expanding vaccine eligibility, in some instances to all adults, and federal health officials say there will be enough supply for everyone to be vaccinated by the end of May.
Walensky tried to emphasize both aspects this week when she issued an emotional appeal to the public.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope. But right now I’m scared,” Walensky said, adding that she had a “sense of impending doom” if people continued to ignore public health precautions.
Yet almost in the next breath, she talked about a “tremendously encouraging” new study showing that vaccinated people were 90 percent protected from infection, meaning they pose an extremely low risk of spreading the virus.
While that may come across as mixed messaging, experts say it accurately reflects not only where things stand right now but also how the country has been reacting to the virus for the past year.
“Whiplash is a true reflection of how we’re all experiencing the epidemic and the response to it. So I’d rather she be honest about that and others be honest about that than give people something that they want … to make them feel better,” said Judith Auerbach, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
Auerbach, who previously worked with Walensky on HIV research, praised the director’s openness, which she said had been missing from agency leadership during the Trump administration.
“She’s being really honest about her own emotions. That’s hard for a fed to do and get away with,” Auerbach said. “The science that says we all still need to be, in fact, quite scared because we’re in this race between the vaccines … versus the emergence of these variants, and she felt it at a visceral level, and she conveyed that in a way that I thought was quite telling.”
Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and a former CDC media relations director, said Walensky’s candor helps establish credibility.
“She has embraced the fact that credibility comes from being transparent and honest and genuine about your fears and your concerns,” Nowak said.
The CDC declined to make Walensky available for an interview, but in a statement to The Hill, an agency spokesman said every communication reflects the latest science and epidemiology.
“At times, moments must balance hope that we will move out of the pandemic with the reality that we are not out of it yet,” the spokesman said.
“We acknowledge the challenge of conveying such hope and promise that vaccines offer with the reality that cases and deaths are rising. While we are sending the critical message that people cannot and should not let up on their prevention measures, we do remain very optimistic about what the future of a fully vaccinated public will offer,” the spokesman added.
On Friday, Walensky again came under criticism for her messaging. In updated guidance, the CDC said it is safe for people who have been fully vaccinated to travel.
But Walensky struck a cautionary tone by saying the CDC still recommends anyone, vaccinated or not, avoid nonessential travel because infection numbers are so high.
“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases,” Walensky said during a White House briefing. “I would advocate against general travel overall. Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel. Our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so.”
Nowak said part of what makes public health messaging so difficult is the fact that science doesn’t always deal in absolutes and that the public overall doesn’t do well with nuance.
“Often people don’t want to listen to the nuance; they want advice and guidance to be stable. They get frustrated with the changes or when it seems to be contradictory. They also get frustrated if it doesn’t match their everyday living experiences,” Nowak said.
With the travel guidance, Walensky attempted to spell out the balance she was trying to strike and asked the public for patience and understanding.
“I want to acknowledge today that providing guidance in the midst of a changing pandemic and its changing science is complex,” Walensky said.
“The science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely, and it’s important for us to provide that guidance, even in the context of rising cases. At the same time, we must balance the science with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to our rising cases,” she said.
Jen Kates, director for global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has known Walensky for decades, said she thinks the CDC director is aware that she can’t escape criticism, especially when so many people have pandemic fatigue.
If the CDC is too strict and refuses to endorse relatively normal behavior, especially after people get vaccinated, it could risk others refusing to get the shot, Kates said.
But if the agency paints too rosy a picture, more people could act like the pandemic is over and risk further spread of the virus.
“It behooves public officials to always be cognizant that their words are being listened to and can be taken out of context or may be hard for people to grasp,” Kates said. “So I think Dr. Walensky is a great communicator, but that doesn’t mean that this is always easy to do and the balance is always straightforward.”