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Rochelle Walensky is not good at this

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a coronavirus briefing in December 2020. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

We learned Friday that Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has sought the counsel of a prominent media consultant amid struggles to craft a coherent and consistent message on the coronavirus.

It might be time for some more intensive sessions.

Even the same morning as that news was reported, Walensky appeared on ABC News and caused a stir by saying it was “really encouraging news” that 75 percent of vaccinated people who were dying from the coronavirus had four or more comorbidities. This led to criticisms that she was trivializing the tens of millions of Americans who have such comorbidities. She tried to clean up that mess Sunday by tweeting that she “went into medicine … and public health to protect our most at-risk.”

Just a few hours earlier, though, Walensky had slipped up again — and on much the same topic.

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” host Bret Baier peppered her with skeptical questions about coronavirus vaccine mandates and other mitigation measures. The exchange that has gotten all the attention — particularly on the right — is when he asked her about a popular argument in conservative circles: that many people classified as coronavirus deaths are actually dying “with covid” rather than “of covid.”

Perhaps owing to the experience of the days prior, Walensky offered a rather noncommittal answer.

“With omicron, we are following that very carefully,” she said. “Our death registry, of course, takes a few weeks to … collect, and of course omicron has just been with us for a few weeks. But those data will be forthcoming.”

Over the past two months, the Biden administration has urged Americans to get coronavirus vaccine boosters without changing its “fully vaccinated" definition. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Anybody who has followed coronavirus misinformation over the past two years, as we have, would know what this was about: the idea that it’s just a coincidence that people who are dying of other things happened to have died shortly after contracting the virus. This has been a mainstay on the right, particularly with the likes of Tucker Carlson, who raised the issue as early as April 2020. Back then, it was about suggesting the official death toll during Donald Trump’s presidency was inflated. (Trump himself notably disagreed with that.) Today, it’s about suggesting maybe we don’t need so much mitigation.

But Walensky didn’t seem to recognize it as such. Instead, her response indicated she viewed the question as being about that difference between dying with comorbidities and without them.

Baier didn’t pitch the issue as deceptively as others have, but his phrasing certainly suggested that people dying “with covid” was distinct from those dying “from covid.”

“How many of the 836,000 deaths in the U.S. linked to covid are from covid or how many are with covid but they had other comorbidities? Do you have that breakdown?” he asked before eliciting Walensky’s “data will be forthcoming” response.

Walensky’s response granting the premise has led to some predictable headlines on the right.

Walensky Dodges on How Many U.S. Covid Deaths Are Actually Caused by Covid,” the National Review’s said.

CDC Director Walensky fails to disclose how many deaths were ‘from’ COVID-19: ‘Data will be forthcoming,' ” Fox News’s read.

The Republican National Committee, in a tweet, made clear how much those on the right viewed Walensky’s punt as significant when it comes to arguing against coronavirus mitigation measures.

The thing about dying “with covid” rather than “from covid” is that it’s likely at least some people have — and probably more today than before. As Walensky noted in the same interview, about 40 percent of people in the hospital who tested positive for the coronavirus did not come in for covid-related reasons. Some state and local numbers suggest this constitutes even a majority of hospitalized people who test positive. The omicron variant is proving extremely contagious, but less severe on a person-by-person basis.

But just because people are testing positive for the virus despite coming in for other reasons doesn’t mean the virus is incidental — particularly in the worst cases, in which someone dies. As we wrote when these claims cropped up early on, the idea that any hugely significant number of people happen to die shortly after contracting the virus but die of other causes and without the virus playing a role is pretty far-fetched. Comorbidities are clearly a factor worth understanding fully, but that’s different from saying someone didn’t die “from” the virus.

Yes, hundreds of thousands of people have died from covid-19

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson also noted that the argument for incidental covid deaths playing a significant role is severely undermined by the fact that excess deaths — that is, deaths above the normal rate at any given time from all causes — correlate closely with spikes in infections.

When this came up in early April, there was another key health official whose comments led to a similar response on the right. Deborah Birx, Trump’s coronavirus adviser, had said, “If someone dies with covid-19, we are counting that as a covid-19 death.” Fox News pundit Brit Hume soon appeared on Carlson’s show and argued that this validated the argument that the virus was incidental in a significant number of cases and the death tolls were inflated. (He chose a particularly bad comparison, though, spotlighting prostate cancer, a disease that is often lengthy.)

Fox’s Harris Faulkner soon asked a medical-expert contributor, “How many of those people had other health risks at play, though, and maybe it wasn’t in fact covid-19 that caused their death?” The medical expert rejected the premise, saying, “I don’t think it’s going to be a significant difference.”

Another medical expert who debunked the idea: Birx herself. Asked about the emerging theory that significant numbers of people were dying “with covid” rather than “from” it, she said, “Those individuals will have an underlying condition, but that underlying condition did not cause their acute death when it’s related to a covid infection. In fact, it’s the opposite.”

Twenty-one months later — with covid misinformation still permeating conservative media — you’d think the Biden administration’s health officials would have learned from that experience.

Even as Walensky’s new comment was blowing up, others were resurfacing an August comment in which she said that what the vaccines “can’t do anymore is prevent transmission.”

Anti-vaxxers and vaccine mandate opponents have willfully misused such comments, casting them as suggesting there is no reason for such mandates. But there is a difference between eliminating transmission altogether and reducing it, which health officials would do well to emphasize.

Walensky, to her credit, was clear even in the same interview Sunday that it was the latter. She said that while there are more breakthrough infections these days, vaccinated people remain significantly less likely to contract the virus in the first place (in addition to having much better outcomes), and thus less likely to transmit it.

At least some of that media training, it would seem, has paid off.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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