It’s been a rough few weeks for Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the messaging front.
On Friday, exclusive reporting from CNN revealed that Walensky has, for months, been consulting with Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald to try to improve as a messenger.
But on that same day, an edit in a taped ABC News interview set off another round of criticism.
As viewers heard it on air, Walensky said it was “really encouraging news in the context of Omicron” that over 75% of people dying from Covid-19 had at least four “comorbidities.”
CNN’s Daniel Dale noted that the ABC News interview left out other comments showing Walensky was talking about a study of vaccinated people – not overall Covid cases – in which 36 out of more than a million people had died (i.e. over 75% of the 36 people). The problem for Walensky was the out-of-context comments were already out there.
(She later tweeted an explanation that she “went into medicine – HIV specifically – and public health to protect our most at-risk.”)
On Tuesday, Walensky told a Senate health committee that “it was a pre-taped interview and much of it was cut and that phrase was taken out of context. ”
“The study was a cohort of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated and 36 people passed, demonstrating their remarkable effectiveness of our vaccines, but no less tragic is the 36 people who passed because of Covid-19 and that many of them had comorbidities,” she said.
In the meantime, conservatives had also seized on Walensky’s unwillingness in a Sunday interview with Fox to delineate how many of the 800,000 deaths of Americans during the pandemic were the direct result of the virus. “Walensky Dodges on How Many U.S. Covid Deaths Are Actually Caused by Covid,” read a headline from National Review. Walensky did say in that interview “our death registry takes a few weeks to collect and Omicron has been with us for just a few weeks but those data will be forthcoming.”
Those moments are part of a broader problem with the CDC, particularly as it relates to the organization’s at-times confusing and seemingly contradictory about quarantine times in regards people who test positive for Covid-19.
So you could see why some within the Biden administration would want to throw Walensky a life preserver. Enter Secretary Xavier Becerra, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview he did on CNN on Monday.
Here’s the key bit (bolding is mine): “Rochelle Walensky is an infectious disease expert. She has a medical license and she has a degree in public health. She doesn’t have a degree in marketing. She has a degree in medicine and public health and she’s an infectious disease expert. Who do I want running CDC? Someone who knows infectious diseases, someone who understands this stuff. And so while we may have issues with some of the marketing that’s been done, I guarantee you, Dr. Walensky is someone we need at CDC.”
Let’s remember what we are talking about here when we talk about the CDC: It’s the country’s main repository of knowledge and guidance about best practices to successfully mitigate the spread of a virus that has killed more than 839,000 Americans and 5.5 million people globally.
What the CDC does isn’t trying to make a product more appealing to a theoretical consumer. It’s to help save lives, to keep people from unnecessarily dying from this awful virus. Walensky isn’t hocking the “ShamWow”; she is a medical doctor telling America how to stay safe.
The problem then isn’t “marketing.” It’s clear communication on, literally, a matter of life and death.
Look, I get what Becerra was trying to do. He saw Walensky struggling and was trying to help her out. Instead, he helped drag both of them lower.