Earlier this month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that teachers did not need COVID-19 vaccine shots to return to the classroom safely.
It seemed, at the time, like a relatively straightforward statement, one several studies conducted by the CDC had supported. But the comment sent Biden administration officials spinning, in part because the White House was not prepared to make an official announcement on schools. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Walensky was “speaking in her personal capacity” when she made the comment; Psaki’s statement then raised questions of its own since Walensky was speaking very much in her official capacity as the director of the CDC at the press conference.
The CDC eventually published its recommendations, which clearly stated schools did not need to vaccinate staff in order to safely reopen. But Biden political figures continued to dodge questions about the guidance until Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical officer, told CBS This Morning what the science told him: “To make it a sine qua non that you don’t open a school until every teacher is vaccinated I think is not workable.”
It was the first time the Biden team had faced questions about its COVID-19 messaging and whether it truly was going to let science lead the way, as Biden had promised on the campaign. But it wouldn’t be the last. Over the next several weeks, a series of comments by other top officials, including Fauci, muddied the discussion not just on school reopenings but on vaccinations, when the country would reach herd immunity through vaccination, and when Americans could expect to return to their normal lives.
Combined, the incidents underscore the difficulty the Biden team faces in trying to stick to the mantra of letting science lead while also trying to maintain control of the administration’s communications about the pandemic. Putting health officials out front three times a week in public press conferences could bring with it varying opinions, or mixed messaging, potentially undermining Americans’ confidence in the federal government’s ability to lead at a time when they are looking for clarity, current and former officials said.
“I think that tension is sort of always there,” said Kathleen Sebelius, former Department of Health and Human Services secretary under President Obama. “Scientists learn something different every day and they update things. And somehow the notion that if they change their advice as they learn more they’ve been lying to the public is just ridiculous. What we want them to do is learn more and tell us what they know, what they don’t know, and why it is that it might change.”
But Biden White House officials are slowly realizing that simply letting go of control and relying on the scientists to speak to the American people doesn’t always produce the best communication results. That’s because whatever narrative the White House may want to set—for example, that it would take a while to correct course on vaccine distribution because the Trump administration had left things in disarray and had not cooperated during the transition—may not coincide exactly with what evidence, facts, or data scientists have in front of them, officials said.
“I think in general there are answers to questions that get put to scientists that, because we live in the nuanced news environment, can be unforgiving,” one former senior Trump administration official said. “Media can clip a single sentence that may have been couched in a ton of caveats. It is great we have people that are media savvy and are scientists, but if you want to have communications and the science… [scientists] answer the questions presented to them. They don’t stick to a script. It makes communicating very hard.”
The former official pointed to an incident at the beginning of the Biden administration where Fauci publicly challenged a story published by CNN that quoted an anonymous official saying the COVID-19 team needed to “start from scratch” on the vaccine distribution. "We’re certainly not starting from scratch, because there is activity going on in the distribution," Fauci told reporters during a press conference Jan. 21. “We’re coming in with fresh ideas, but also some ideas that were not bad ideas with the previous administration.”
On Monday, in answering a question about if more could have been done in the last month to help save lives, Psaki answered in part by saying the administration “inherited a circumstance where there were not enough vaccines ordered.” But Walensky and other health officials have said in recent press conferences that the messy vaccine distribution rollout wasn’t a result of a lack of available doses, it was because states had held them in reserve and were not administering them at efficient rates. The distinction is important. It shows the Trump administration had done its job in contracting with pharmaceutical companies to produce and distribute millions of vaccine doses and that the states were struggling to get shots in arms.
Some mixed signals are inevitable, Biden officials say, when they put scientists at the forefront of the conversation. There are bound to be changing narratives about the administration’s COVID-19 response—because the science is changing and new facts emerge almost daily.
“These scientists are following data and peer-reviewed studies that officials inside the White House are not necessarily poring over,” said one current senior health official. “It makes sense, then, that when someone like Fauci gets up there and starts saying things… that those White House officials are caught off guard and might not know exactly how to respond.”
As Fauci told The Daily Beast in an interview last week, “There isn’t even the slightest hint of telling you what to say and what not to say.”
He continued, “They say, ‘OK, go up there and say what you think will be important. And that’s what I did the other day when I said, ‘Hey, I found these two papers that showed that it looks like we are heading in the right direction, that vaccines are going to diminish transmission, likely because they diminish the viral load via nasal pharynx.’ I thought it would be important for the audience to know that and that’s why I brought it up.”
But Fauci has miscalculated before. In March of last year, he told CBS that there was “no reason to be walking around with a mask.” Fauci has since explained away his early statement against masks, saying the science about COVID-19 spreading through aerosols became clearer as time went on, but that just reinforces the dangers of speaking without complete information. Earlier this month, he said, “Virtually anybody, and anyone, in any category, could start to get vaccinated” by the end of April. That timeline looks wildly optimistic now.
Off-pitch notes like these aren’t just confusing to the public. Not knowing exactly what Fauci or other health officials will say in a public press conference has its downsides. “It doesn’t give the comms team in the White House the ability to speak with authority when they get to the podium,” one official said.
Perhaps no other health agency needed a boost in morale post-Trump than the CDC—which was notoriously cut out of important policy conversations, two officials there said. The Biden team is trying to bring the CDC back into the fold, those sources said, in part by taking simple steps like including Walensky in every COVID-19 press conference.
“The public has seen CDC in a much more visible role,” one senior CDC official told The Daily Beast. “Our director briefs three times a week with the White House. Throughout the pandemic, CDC has been working 24/7 in response mode, investigating, responding, communicating, disseminating, what we know. I think CDC, while we’ve been very busy, perhaps behind the scenes, you know, we’re continuing to be very busy, but just more publicly right now.”
Senior administration officials working on the federal government’s pandemic response say the level of general frustration among rank-and-file officials at the CDC is more pervasive than previously understood.
While the agency at times tripped up in its communiqués—publishing them only to retract or change them later—senior officials at the CDC said the majority of the mixed messaging was the result of pressure by the White House, specifically former President Trump and his adviser Scott Atlas. For example, in August, the CDC put out guidance that said individuals who were not exhibiting COVID-related symptoms “do not necessarily need a test.” Days after the Aug. 24 guidelines were issued, the CDC had revised the language to note that testing was recommended “for all close contacts of persons with SARS-CoV-2 infection.” The very next week the CDC issued yet another update saying individuals who do not present with symptoms should still be tested for COVID-19 “due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission.” The mixed messaging was the result of pressure from the White House, particularly Trump, who wanted to create the perfect conditions and guidelines to help ease school reopenings.
“There were conversations going on constantly behind the scenes between Redfield, HHS political appointees, and the White House. We would have one thing drafted and ready to go and then the next thing we knew it had all been changed,” one CDC official said, referring to former CDC Director Robert Redfield.
For former Trump administration health officials, two of whom spoke to The Daily Beast for this story, keeping the president on message was often the biggest task. Second to that, they said, was trying to ensure the health agencies maintained their integrity in the policy process. It wasn’t easy. At one point, senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) interfered with the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports and at times pressured scientists there to change the wording of those reports. An investigation by the House Select Subcommittee on COVID-19 supports those claims. Other former Trump officials said former White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx also edited the weekly reports and that doing so was part of the normal interagency policy review process.
Current CDC officials say they have taken on the responsibility of owning—at least more publicly—the guidelines it puts out, even if they are often changing because of new science emerging. For example, the CDC recently released new guidance on masking, asking Americans to wear two masks instead of one because “a mask with layers will stop more respiratory droplets getting inside your mask or escaping from your mask if you are sick.”
“I think that it’s understandable that people are frustrated. Folks have been tackling this pandemic at the individual family and community level for over a year now. And it’s been really hard. Half a million, or just about a half a million, people have lost their lives,” said the senior CDC official. “I think a challenge in the past has been changes in archives or changes in information that we weren’t able to adequately explain. This is just an information overload time for people. And so we really tried to use repetition, use channels of trusted partners and others who can be messengers in communities and different stakeholder groups.”
Behind the scenes, senior officials say there are increasing tensions inside the agency, some of them left over from the former administration, about how the CDC collects data and uses its science to inform others.
For example, there are ongoing concerns that the CDC is relying on an arcane reporting system where states’ COVID-19 data is often delayed or at times even inaccurate. State officials have in recent weeks told federal officials in phone calls and other meetings that the CDC is painting a gloomier picture of the state of the vaccine distribution than what the reality on the ground suggests. Governors have said they specifically disagree with the way the agency portrays state vaccination rates, with some arguing that their administration rates are much higher than the federal tracker reflects.
There have also been questions, primarily from Republicans on Capitol Hill, about why the CDC did not rely more heavily on existing evidence of low transmission rates in schools in its reopening guidelines. Republicans have said the recommendations create too many barriers for reopening. On the flip side, teachers across the country have said the agency, and the federal government in general, should have done more to help educators get vaccinated as a prerequisite for opening schools.
“What the guidelines were about was having layered mitigation components that we know work. We were committed that if you were open, even if you’re in that highest resolution area, you could stay open, as long as it was going OK, and you were continuing to do mitigation measures. If you weren’t yet open, we laid out the path to get you there,” the senior CDC official said. “We continue to learn that different parts of the country are experiencing this differently. We’re not expecting everyone to be happy.”