The indigenous wisdom of the Yukon suggests that if wolves are pursuing your sled, it’s a good idea to throw out a piece of meat to buy time. This advice comes to mind in trying to understand what happened last month, when Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), once one of the U.S. government’s most respected public agencies, made a public apology for its failures during the Covid pandemic. “For 75 years,” Walensky told a press gathering on August 15, “CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations.”
Walensky said that the mea culpa was prompted by preliminary findings of an internal panel she appointed in April to improve CDC management. Its conclusions are not yet public. Her confession puzzled Washington’s political and bureaucratic establishment, and uncritical national media has mostly ignored her statement. After such a bombshell, one would expect appearances on television and plentiful commentary. But so far, the establishment and press are treading carefully. Why? Perhaps because they know that this initial disturbance to the pond might send ripples in their direction.
Consider that, just four days before Walensky’s statement, the CDC undid much of the guidance it had spent more than two years inventing, justifying, and enforcing. On August 11, the CDC substantially relaxed its Covid guidance by dropping social distancing, suggesting that masking is needed only around sick people or those with an active case, and dropping the need to quarantine for unvaccinated individuals, suggesting instead a five-day period of self-imposed isolation. Routine testing by employers and schools is no longer part of CDC guidance. The CDC largely removed schools, businesses, and institutions from an enforcement role on social distancing, masking, and quarantining and reduced its suggested booster frequency to once a year.
After promoting every CDC utterance for nearly three years, the press seemed strangely reluctant to credit the new instructions. Indeed, the media by and large continues to cheer on decisions by mayors, school boards, and university administrations to enforce masking requirements and nonstop vaccinations.
Public apologies are not in the playbook of official Washington. Those who make their living inside the Beltway may wonder what game Walensky is really playing. Months ago, many believed that she was being naïve when she took the lead on the Biden administration’s effort to curry favor with renters by suspending evictions. The move was not even remotely connected to the CDC’s mission, and the Supreme Court swiftly struck it down as unconstitutional. Similarly, Walensky acted as the face of the administration when she shut down schools to accommodate the demands of Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. These and other decisions caused many to see her as a White House puppet, ready to risk the reputation of her agency by agreeing to handle the administration’s political dirty work.
Walensky did the administration several other seldom-recognized favors. On her watch, the CDC has ignored infectious threats related to the massive flow of human traffic across the nation’s southern border. These migrants are seldom screened for active communicable diseases, and no attempts have been made to vaccinate most of them against Covid or many other prevalent communicable diseases. President Biden’s open- borders constituency would sooner endanger public health than appear racist.
What may really be dampening coverage of Walensky’s apostasy is uncertainty about what we might hear next. Having confessed to her agency’s making “pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes,” she had suggested that the pending final report, offering recommendations for making the CDC “more nimble and responsive,” would appear on August 24. It has yet to materialize.
Subsequent comments from Walensky suggest that the report will tout major shifts in management but will change little about the CDC’s future performance. She has said, for example, that the CDC’s biggest failure was one of communication—specifically, that the agency talked too much to the scientific community and not enough to the public. She has also said that the agency’s communication problem was made worse by external “misinformation”—a problematic complaint, given the stream of information that the CDC itself had issued during the epidemic that it knew to be false. Recently released emails show that the CDC was clandestinely working with social-media companies to censor commentary that contradicted this false instruction.
Pledging reforms of staff culture, Walensky described how she intends to change publishing practices among agency scientists, who are more interested in producing peer-reviewed papers than practical research that could guide decision-making. She also spoke of how hard it was to reassign CDC staff to focus on controlling Covid; to overcome such resistance, she suggested that CDC directors should be able to provide cash incentives to motivate staff to do the job taxpayers already pay them to do.
Similarly, Walensky has complained that the limits imposed by some congressional programs make it hard to reallocate funds as changing circumstances dictate. But by her actions on evictions, school closures, and other matters, Walensky has proved herself a model custodian of the administrative state. She would happily displace the will of elected representatives and rely instead on her presumed expert knowledge. It is a foregone conclusion that the report will find that the CDC is “underfunded” and will call upon Congress to boost, if not double, the agency’s budget.
In the fault-free Biden administration, no one gets fired, no matter how grievous his errors of judgment or how tragic the results (see the Afghanistan withdrawal), but last spring Walensky worried that she might be the exception. Among other concerns, she watched as a bipartisan group of senators called for an investigatory commission. Senator Mitt Romney spoke of partially dismantling the CDC and sending its data-analytics function, a well-known agency weakness, to the Department of Health and Human Services. Walensky took pains to claim responsibility for initiating the review.
This may help explain how, without a final report in hand, she has hired a former deputy secretary of HHS from the Obama administration, Mary Wakefield, and delegated to her management of the agency’s reform. In another sign that a comfortable, in-house reform process is already underway, she has hired a former HHS communications officer and spokesperson for Planned Parenthood to manage the CDC’s messaging.
Walensky’s anticipated reforms are likely to be tested even before they are implemented. The emergence of monkeypox in the U.S. may soon reveal the CDC’s intractable incompetence. It has already fallen behind the curve in developing an effective prevention strategy, including keeping an adequate supply of vaccines. Moreover, as was the case with HIV, the CDC refuses to speak plainly about the populations most affected, thus needlessly alarming the general population and confusing those at most risk, who should be instituting their own preventive measures.
The Centers for Disease Control has thoroughly destroyed its own credibility with most Americans. Even if Walensky’s reforms result in flawless science and near-perfect guidance during the next pandemic, we shouldn’t be surprised if many Americans ignore the CDC from now on.
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