Public Health

Biden’s New CDC Director Says Trump Administration “Silenced” Scientists

Rochelle Walensky, who was nominated as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks after U.S. President-elect Joe Biden started his team dealing with the Covid-19 on December 8 at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware. Pandemic commissioned, 2020.

Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, banned by the Trump administration during the Covid-19 pandemic, will be “heard again,” said Joe Biden’s election to head the agency on Tuesday.

Last year, the CDC went months without addressing the US public after Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases of the CDC, warned in February that schools and businesses may have to close to contain the coronavirus.

“We urge the American public to work with us to prepare for expectation that this could be bad,” Messonnier said in forward-looking remarks that upset markets and allegedly angered President Donald Trump.

During the pandemic, Trump continued to work with the best scientists in the country, including current CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, got into conflict and publicly contradicted him on issues like the schedule for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s new CDC director, promised to restore the public voice of the CDC and its scholars.

“They were decreased. I think they became constipated. That science was not heard,” she told Dr. Howard Bauchner of the Journal of the American Medical Association. “This world-class agency, world-famous, hasn’t really been appreciated in the last four years and has really been evident in the last year so I have to fix this.”

Walensky said she intends to revise the CDC’s communications efforts under the Biden administration. This could include regular briefings led by herself or subject matter experts to explain the scientific research published in the CDC’s weekly report on morbidity and mortality, she said. She added that this will likely also mean a more concerted plan to engage the public on social media.

“Science is now being delivered on Twitter. Science is delivered on social media, in podcasts, and in a lot of different ways, and I think that’s crucial,” Walensky said. “We need to have a social media plan for the agency.”

She said building the agency’s social media presence will be especially important as the country battles vaccine hesitation. Misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines is rife on social media, she said, adding that the agency needs to get “the right information” out.

Over the past year, the CDC’s communications have often contradicted those of the White House. The agency revised guidelines on reopening churches and religious sites after Trump urged state officials to allow houses of worship to reopen. Over the summer, Trump installed longtime ally and former campaign official Michael Caputo as top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC’s mother division, to better tailor the news to the White House.

Caputo and his team sought to undermine CDC scientists, urging them to revise scientific research that violated White House guidelines, internal emails from House lawmakers show. Walensky said Tuesday she would ensure that the CDC communicates transparently with the American people regardless of the political ramifications.

“I have to fix that immediately,” she said.

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