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New CDC chief Rochelle Walensky says staff at agency have been ‘muzzled’ and ‘beaten down’

Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky.JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described low morale among staff at the agency after Donald Trump spent months downplaying the severity of COVID-19, flouting the agency’s recommendations, and sidelining public health experts.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Wednesday, Walensky said staff at the CDC have been “muzzled, they have been beaten down, but they are still there, and they are working hard, long hours.”

Walensky, formerly chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, described staff at the agency as “career public health officials, stewards of the health of this nation and really of the world” who are “doing the hard work that is about to protect the rest of the country and that has been working to protect the rest of the country.”

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The Trump administration has been widely criticized for its bungled response to the pandemic, with the United States leading the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Trump spent months trying to minimize the deadly virus, comparing it to the flu, predicting it would just “disappear,” refusing to follow or promote mitigation measures suggested by the CDC like wearing masks, and pushing for businesses to reopen.

When Trump left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after himself receiving treatment for the virus, which at the time had killed more than 200,000 Americans, he urged people not to be afraid of coronavirus and not to let it “dominate your life.”

As recently as early January, Trump criticized the CDC and baselessly suggested the agency was attributing non-COVID-19 deaths to the virus.

“The number of cases and deaths of [COVID-19] is far exaggerated in the United States because of @CDCgov’s ridiculous method of determination compared to other countries, many of whom report, purposely, very inaccurately and low,” he tweeted on Jan. 3, using a racist term to describe the disease’s origin in China. “‘When in doubt, call it Covid.’ Fake News!”

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In response to Trump’s tweet, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the country, said in an interview with ABC News that the strain hospitals were experiencing at the time due to the onslaught of patients was real.

“In many areas of the country, the hospital beds are stretched, people are running out of beds, running out of trained personnel who are exhausted right now,” Fauci said. “That’s real, that’s not fake, that’s real.”

On the first full day of President Biden’s term, Fauci spoke at a White House press briefing and said it was a “liberating” feeling to be able to speak freely about scientific facts without worry that he’s contradicting the president.

“It was very clear that there were things that were said, be it regarding things like hydroxychloroquine and other things, that really was uncomfortable because they were not based in scientific fact,” Fauci said, adding he took “no pleasure” in contradicting Trump.

Walensky took the helm of the agency as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged across the country. January was the deadliest month of the pandemic with 95,000 lives lost. More than 450,000 people have died due to COVID-19 in the US and more than 26 million have been infected, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

“Over 8,000 of [CDC staff members] have been working towards COVID-19 over the last year, 1,500 of them have been deployed to 250 cities across the nation and the world,” Walensky told Maddow. “And they are still there doing the work of public health and reviewing the science and making sure that science gets heard.”

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Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.