On Sunday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky found herself struggling to defend the agency’s confusing and abrupt announcement that vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks anymore, insisting that she was merely “following the science” rather than bowing to political pressure.
Making the rounds on the Sunday news shows, Walensky was repeatedly grilled by hosts about the decision-making behind the relaxed mask guidelines. On Fox News Sunday, for instance, veteran anchor Chris Wallace pointed out that Walensky’s agency was singing a different tune just a day before their bombshell announcement.
“On Wednesday night, you were still arguing, still making the case that people who are fully vaccinated needed to wear masks indoors,” Wallace noted. “And then Thursday, less than 24 hours later, you said, ‘No, it changed, now you don’t need masks if you’re fully vaccinated either indoors or outdoors.’ Would you agree that this abrupt shift was not handled as well as it might have been?”
Walensky, for her part, claimed that “things in this pandemic are starting to turn around” and the updated mask guidance was based on new data the CDC had received last week.
Pointing to the “increasing pressure” the CDC was facing from politicians and media to relax or eliminate mask guidelines amid plunging COVID cases and deaths, Wallace asked Walensky if she could “state flatly to the American people that pressure had nothing to do with the abrupt shift” in the CDC’s guidelines.
“Yes, I can,” Walensky replied. “I’m delivering the science as the science is delivered to the medical journals. It evolved over this last week. The cases came down over these last two weeks.”
Wallace, meanwhile, said that while the new guidelines should be seen as good news overall, “it certainly has created some confusion and even concern.” For example, some states are still mandating masks indoors and outdoors despite the new federal guidance, and businesses can also set their own rules. The CDC also buried some exceptions in their new guidelines for public transport, hospitals, prisons, and airports.
Furthermore, considering there’s no official system in place to verify who is or isn’t vaccinated, Wallace wanted to know if the CDC is relying on “an unrealistic honor system.”
“The honor system is to be honest with yourself,” Walensky said. “If you are vaccinated, we are saying you are safe, you can take off your mask, and you are not at risk of severe disease or hospitalization from COVID-19. If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe. Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask.”
Walensky was challenged by Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd on Sunday about the new guidance’s rollout and whether she felt it had been rushed. He also wondered aloud if the government was relying on businesses to essentially enforce a vaccine mandate.
“We’re not counting on vaccine mandates at all,” the CDC director replied. “It may very well be that local businesses, local jurisdictions will work toward vaccine mandates. That is going to be locally driven and not federally driven.”
Walensky was also pressed on whether she’s concerned that the federal government may not be able to enforce any possibly mask-wearing guidances in the future now that they’ve given this recommendation.
“We were pretty clear when we lifted it that the science right now tells us that it is safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks,” Walensky asserted.
“We also said that this virus has given us many curve balls over the last 16 months. We've also said that the more circulating virus that we have, the more likely it is that variants will emerge.”
Public health experts surveyed by The Daily Beast last week broadly agreed with the new guidance but warned the blanket nationwide approach failed to account for America’s vast problems with vaccine hesitancy and pandemic truthers.