Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says she’s not surprised that some people need to be persuaded to get coronavirus vaccinations, but she was dismayed by the politicization of the issue.
“I’m disappointed that it’s become as political as it has, because I think we can, politics aside, I think we can all agree that we want to be healthy. We want our family members to be healthy. We want to have our children in school and our economy working well. And if we can sort of fundamentally get to those truths that I think are really unifying, then I think we can have discussions about the best way to get there,” said Walensky.
Walensky, who was formerly chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, reflected on the challenges she’d seen herself persuading people to get shots in a conversation with Boston Globe Spotlight Team editor Patricia Wen at the inaugural Globe Summit, a three-day virtual conference Wednesday through Friday.
“I think so much of what I’ve learned in infectious disease is that there is science, academic science with regard to the immunology of how we develop vaccines, and then there’s behavioral science and how we implement those things and how communities engage,” she said. “Trusted messengers” such as community health workers can be key to persuading those who are reluctant.
“There are patients that I have seen or taken care of before, where I wasn’t the one who could convince them to do the best thing for their health, their community worker was,” she said.
“Sometimes when you just give people the information, you give people the science, you actually unpack their biggest concerns, you really realize that maybe it’s about convenience, maybe it’s about access, maybe it’s about vaccines being new ... They may not go out and get the vaccine immediately, but they may then talk to another trusted messenger and sort of find their way to a vaccine,” she said.
“I really think that this is a lesson that we’re learning the hard way as a nation.”
Walensky, who started as CDC director on Inauguration Day, also defended the CDC’s changing guidance on masks. The CDC in May told vaccinated Americans that they did not need to wear masks in indoor public spaces. In August, the agency changed course, saying that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, should wear masks in those spaces in areas of substantial or high transmission. (Only a few very small pockets of the country are not in those categories.)
At the time of the May guidance, she said, scientists believed the vaccines were working well against the Alpha variant and those who got breakthrough infections could not transmit it. But with the rise of the super-contagious Delta variant, she said, research — including a key study of an outbreak in Provincetown —indicated that vaccinated people could spread the Delta variant, thus making it necessary to recommend indoor masking again for the vaccinated.
“I know it feels different, it feels evolving, and to some it feels confusing, but in fact what we have done is follow the science, and the science, with the different variants, changed,” she said.
Walensky, who is splitting her time between Massachusetts, where she still has family, and Atlanta, where the CDC is headquartered, said, “This has been a humbling 18 months. I saw one side of that from taking care of patients, taking care of health care workers and faculty in a large academic hospital, and what we went through when we saw this first wave. I’ve seen a completely different perspective as I’ve had the great privilege of being here at the CDC.”
“We are now in a wave that we don’t really particularly want to be in and I’m hopeful that things will start to get better,” she said in the prerecorded conversation.
“What I would really like to see is that we can have this Delta wave come down and our children have a successful school year ahead. I think so much depends on making sure that happens.”
Pfizer said this week it had found its vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old was safe and effective and it would apply for approval later this month. “Certainly, we are anticipating the pediatric vaccinations with urgency,” Walensky said. “I know that parents are very interested in this.”
At the same time, she urged everyone else eligible to get vaccinated, saying it would protect the children until they can get their shots. “What I would say in that respect is increasing data continue to demonstrate that if we can vaccinate the communities around the children, [if] we can vaccinate the people who are eligible to be vaccinated, that has a direct impact, and we have less disease in our kids.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.