Lawmakers still have questions about how the federal government’s leading health agency handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spent more than two hours testifying in “Oversight of CDC Policies and Decisions During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” It was a hearing of the House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.
At least 20 representatives spoke or asked questions on topics ranging from wearing masks to school shutdowns to vaccine effectiveness to communicating about COVID-19, along with the scientific and political responses that developed because of it.
“As a nation, we failed to heed the lessons from previous disease outbreaks,” Walensky said in her opening statement. “We are once again faced with opportunity. Collectively, we should focus our work on moving the agency and public health forward. Our response to the next infectious threat relies on how we come together and have productive conversations about supporting a more prepared America.”
The review is needed to plan for the future, said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, MD, R-Ohio. During the pandemic, the CDC published confusing guidance and made divisive and confusing statements, and the legislators must talk about those things, he said.
“I was hopeful that the pandemic could be a unifying force for our country, and for the world,” Wenstrup said. “After all, common danger unites even the bitterest enemies. Unfortunately, in many ways, our public health leadership does not always rise to the occasion. Instead of being a calm and trusted voice of science and reason, the American people often felt let down, often deceived and left damaged.”
Walensky has announced she will step down at the end of this month. Wenstrup noted the committee had waited for her appearance for weeks, and maybe the administration of President Joe Biden did not want her to talk about COVID-19 pandemic response.
Walensky maintained her decisions were based on the knowledge available at the time, but that rarely did anyone see new scientific findings that were immediately and unanimously clear and consistent.
At times the hearing had partisan overtone, with some members slamming actions, or lack of action, by Biden and his immediate predecessor, President Donald J. Trump.
Committee Ranking Member Rep. Raul Ruiz, MD, MPP, MPH, D-California, noted some huge numbers: 600 million vaccine shots prevented 18.5 million hospitalizations and saved 3.2 million lives. Under Walensky’s leadership, 95% of American schools were able to reopen.
“Throughout the early months of the pandemic our nation’s scientists were sidelined by White House officials and the president’s political allies who meddled in CDC’s communications, public health guidance, and scientific reports,” Ruiz said. “That’s in addition to the president’s own downplaying of the coronavirus, which hampered our nation’s pandemic response during one of the deadliest periods in America’s history.”
Wenstrup and others pressed Walensky on her public statements, such as in February 2021, that schools could reopen and safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated. The next day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Walensky spoke in her personal capacity.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pressed Walensky about accuracy of her statements. He accused the Biden administration of hanging Walensky out to dry when she attempted to speak the truth about reopening schools. Walensky told the committee when she spoke publicly, she spoke in her official capacity, not expressing her personal opinion.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, noted vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna made billions of dollars from American taxpayers. She asked if those companies would be future employers of Walensky once she steps down from CDC leadership. Walensky said they would not be, and that CDC was not responsible for purchasing vaccines.
Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, accused the CDC of working with social media companies Meta, the parent company of Facebook, and Twitter to censor medical information. Rep. Robert Garcia, D-California, and Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, slammed the Trump administration for incompetence and House Republicans for doing nothing about it.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, pressed the point that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) had no special access or privileges in crafting guidance on reopening schools. It was critically important to get schools open and CDC experts spoke with numerous stakeholders, more than 50, to develop guidance “implementable on the ground,” Walensky said. She acknowledged AFT President Randi Weingarten had her professional and personal cell phone numbers. Wenstrup called that and “uncommon” level of access, but Walensky said CDC did not accept some of the AFT suggestions for school reopening guidance. A mother of three, she noted her own children were home from school and her professional goal was for schools to reopen safely.
Wenstrup closed the hearing by noting there are supply chain issues and other issues to make CDC more effective. CDC and lawmakers rely on data.
“And I’m just going to say going forward, I want to get more accuracy to the system and accuracy to the doctor that you know, so that you can go talk to your doctor and say, what’s best for me at this time? Whether it’s this or anything else,” Wenstrup said.