Somewhere, Dr. Deborah Birx is smiling as she ties on one of her signature scarves.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has a coronavirus-related credibility problem.
Of course, it’s nothing like sitting silently by, as Birx did as coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, while Donald Trump suggested the possibility of injecting disinfectant into people to “knock out” COVID-19, or routinely let disinformation from the White House go unchecked, as Birx also did. But, over the weekend, Walensky was pushed to defend her agency’s abrupt reversal on mask-wearing recommendations from charges they were inspired by presidential politics, not science. It shows the tenuous state of trust in experts that continues to exist in this county and the risk to professional reputation that goes with it.
We can blame Trump for that — up to a point. His legacy of lying, which dominated his four years in the Oval Office and continues into his Mar-a-Lago exile, massively undercut public trust in government. Institutions that were once considered above the fray, like election watchdogs and public health agencies, are now viewed through cynical, partisan eyes. But the timing and suddenness of last week’s mask announcement didn’t help the CDC’s post-Trump integrity cause.
Last week, President Biden faced a cascade of grim news, including escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a panic-induced gas shortage at home, and doubts about the economic recovery. Then came the CDC’s surprise announcement that it was no longer necessary for fully vaccinated people to wear a mask, indoors or out. It was happy news, which critics on the right quickly tagged a “distraction.” The criticism was not all partisan; some public health experts also warned that the CDC recommendation to unmask came too soon and would create awkward enforcement situations for restaurants and other businesses.
“Saturday Night Live” mocked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as the “patron saint of Purell,” and put him on the hot seat for the confusing policy turnaround. But it was Walensky who announced the no-mask policy last Thursday — after first telling a Senate health committee on Tuesday that masks were still necessary. “While we continue to have community transmission,” she told a panel of senators, ”we must also maintain public health measures we know will prevent the spread of this virus — mask hygiene, hand hygiene, and physical distancing.” Yet, according to The Washington Post, when Walensky spoke those words, she had already decided to approve a recommendation from CDC officials to no longer require fully vaccinated people to wear masks. The revised guidance regarding masks was announced two days later.
Administration officials said this wasn’t a matter of White House interference but, instead, illustrates a commitment to a strict hands-off policy when it comes to the CDC. It was “the right decision wrongly handled,” a source told the Post. If so, this is a case where more White House control, not less, was needed.
Credibility is a terrible thing to waste, especially after the Trump era. Unfortunately, that was the net result of the CDC’s badly handled announcement. It’s bad for Biden because his strongest support comes from the public’s approval of his handling of the pandemic. At his first 100 days in office marker, Biden had a 67 percent approval rating when it came to assessing his response to the coronavirus. Given the rough political road ahead on priorities like his $2 trillion infrastructure package, Biden can’t afford to squander any credibility, especially as connected to COVID-19.
Neither can the CDC, given its recent history. Congressional investigators have turned up evidence showing Trump officials celebrating efforts to change CDC reports on the coronavirus. Such findings are no shock. The country watched in real time as Trump downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, flanked by doctors and scientists who were willing to compromise themselves. Birx became the most public face of that dissembling and is now trying to refurbish a badly tarnished reputation. That a woman is the one who took the fall and comes out most sullied is no shock either.
Since Biden took office, Walensky and the CDC have played a major role in shoring up public confidence in science over politics. Birx is an extreme but still cautionary tale about what happens when people begin to think the opposite is true.