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CDC director, under fire for confusing guidance, seeks to reshape messaging

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky has come under criticism for the confusing messaging. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo (Pool/Reuters)

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a calculated gamble Friday as she sought to assume greater control over confused public health messaging about the coronavirus as the pandemic enters its third year.

Rochelle Walensky held her first solo covid-19 news conference since becoming the chief of the public health agency nearly a year ago, vowing that it would be “the first of many.”

The briefing comes at a precarious moment for Walensky, a highly regarded infectious-diseases physician who has come under intense criticism for failing to communicate CDC’s often-changing guidance clearly. With coronavirus cases surging to record levels in the United States and around the world, that criticism has been particularly stinging of late, with an uncharacteristically sharp critique this week from the American Medical Association over the agency’s failure to require a negative coronavirus test result before people exit shortened isolation.

“Potentially hundreds of thousands of people could return to work and school infectious if they follow the CDC’s new guidance on ending isolation after five days without a negative test,” the group said.

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Inside the administration, frustration has also been mounting. Officials acknowledge the rapidly changing virus complicates the pandemic response, but some worry Walensky’s public statements have only added to many Americans’ confusion. At times, her guidance has also been at odds with that of other senior administration officials, most notably, that of Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser.

Though some outside experts have called on Biden to change the agency’s leadership, administration officials say the president has no such plans. They say ousting the director amid a new wave of cases would be ill-advised.

For months, at the suggestion of the White House, Walensky has been receiving media coaching from Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Grunwald did not respond to messages for comment. Grunwald’s role was first reported by CNN.

CDC spokesman Jason McDonald said in a statement that directors “have historically consulted coaches and other outside advisers to improve communications and media interview skills. This is not out of the ordinary.”

Walensky offered no apologies on Friday. But she did acknowledge the challenges of staying on top of a fast-evolving virus, saying the CDC is “working really hard to get information to the American public. This is hard, and I am committed to continue to improve as we learn more about the science and to communicate that with all of you.”

And although she did not back off any of the agency’s more controversial recommendations, she took questions on an array of issues, including the record rise in pediatric hospitalizations, why she had not recommended people get tested before leaving isolation and what people should do to return safely to school and work.

Experts say Walensky has nothing to lose by “putting herself out there” to improve her relationship with the public, said Jody Lanard, a physician who worked for nearly two decades as a pandemic communications adviser consulting with the World Health Organization.

“I’m not worried about the White House throwing the CDC under the bus, because the CDC is already under the bus,” Lanard said.

Lanard said the single most important messaging task for Walensky is to acknowledge, “in a confident tone, with no self-flagellation, that many people have told her that her communications have been confusing and unclear.”

Walensky did not do that directly in her briefing, but a federal health official said she understands that people are confused and have questions, and that’s why she put herself in front of a group of reporters.

Although Walensky has participated in dozens of regular briefings as part of the White House covid-19 response team, those sessions include multiple officials and limited time for follow-up questions, and Walensky seldom strays from talking points. When she has — most notably in February when she said teachers did not need to be vaccinated to reopen schools — the White House said she was “speaking in her personal capacity.”

One agency scientist who listened to Friday’s call and who interacts with Walensky regularly said he was disappointed that she did not directly acknowledge the confusion generated by the isolation and testing guidance.

“The lack of recognition that there is a problem — that’s a problem,” the scientist said, noting they had had to spend time explaining it to family members. “You kind of have to be a PhD or an MPH [master of public health],” the scientist said.

The scientist also said some CDC officials involved in the coronavirus response had raised questions about the decisions to shorten isolation time and to omit a requirement for a test.

Experts inside and outside the agency say Walensky is articulate and smart and comes across more effectively when talking to other scientists and public health officials than during White House briefings or media appearances. They hope she can communicate that to the broader public by doing more regular solo sessions. “She’s amazingly bright and I’ve been in conversations with her where she’s processing information and asking questions on the fly, and she is nothing but impressive,” the scientist said.

Former CDC Director Tom Frieden welcomed the news the agency was holding its own briefings with subject-matter experts. “These briefings are helpful in sharing what we are learning when we are learning it, explaining and providing the basis of recommendations, and answering important questions from journalists,” he said in a statement. “I hope this will be an inflection point in rebuilding confidence in CDC.”

But other experts say it’s time to make bigger changes about who the administration puts out front. “Brilliant clinicians, brilliant researchers are not necessarily brilliant communicators,” said Jay A. Winsten, director of strategic media initiatives at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who described the communications situation as at a “tipping point.”

Even on a late-night talk show, he said that Walensky laid out the agency’s recommendations almost in terms of a physician’s decision tree — “If ‘a,’ then 'b'; if ‘b,’ then ‘c,’” — leading the host, Stephen Colbert, to remark on how convoluted the message seemed.

“It’s the way a physician thinks. That’s how they make diagnoses,” Winsten said.

CDC scientists and experts say the agency is trying to move more quickly to respond to constantly changing science about the virus. Matthew Seeger has researched crisis communication for the past 35 years at Wayne State University and helped the CDC develop a manual outlining how U.S. leaders should talk to the public after the 2001 anthrax attacks.

“But we really can’t deploy the science without effective communication, and this is the place we have really fallen down,” Seeger said.

What’s more, he said, public health officials never expected such politicization of public health messages where individuals and organizations are intentionally distorting information. “The public has a different set of expectations for the CDC, and I’m not sure the CDC has really come to grips with that,” he said.

Frances Stead Sellers contributed to this report.

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