The Morning Jolt

Health Care

CDC’s Rochelle Walensky Overrules Her Own Agency

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, testify before a committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters)

On the menu today: CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky decides to overrule her own agency’s advisory panel and recommend boosters for workers who interact with the public a lot, calling into question the administration’s simplistic and often inaccurate slogan, “follow the science”; a little anecdote about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates that she’s not the principled, fearless truth-teller she likes to style herself as; and The New Yorker declares that I’m too harsh on President Biden.

The Biden Team Doesn’t Always ‘Follow the Science’

We can now make a pretty good guess about who told President Biden to say that every American they would need a COVID-19 booster shot eight months after their second shot, advice that top officials at the FDA opposed: “The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday overruled a recommendation by an agency advisory panel that had refused to endorse booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine for frontline workers. It was a highly unusual move for the director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, but aligned CDC policy with the FDA’s endorsements over her own agency’s advisers.”

The FDA recommended booster shots for the elderly, the immunocompromised, and certain workers like “health care workers, teachers and day care staff, grocery workers and those in homeless shelters or prisons.” The CDC advisory panel disagreed, concluding that those frontline workers groups did not need boosters . . . and Walensky chose to overrule them.

Health-care workers, teachers, day-care staff, grocery store workers, and those in homeless shelters or prisons were probably among those who were most likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 at some point during the first 21 months of this pandemic. By now, they may have been exposed multiple times. The majority of those workers are now likely to be vaccinated — remember, 76.7 percent of all U.S. adults have at least one shot — and in the unlikely scenario that these workers procrastinated about getting vaccinated, hospitals, schools, and many businesses are now requiring employees to get vaccinated.

What happens when you combine the protection from a past case of COVID-19 with the protection of a vaccination? Some scientists are calling it “superhuman immunity” or “bulletproof.” Hybrid immunity — having both past infection and the vaccination — increases the odds that the body produces “very high levels of antibodies, but they also make antibodies with great flexibility — likely capable of fighting off the coronavirus variants circulating in the world but also likely effective against variants that may emerge in the future.”

In other words, people who have past infection and who got two shots of Moderna or Pfizer or one shot of Johnson & Johnson have about as robust an immune response as you can get. Is this a group that really needs boosters?

“Follow the science” is an insufferable slogan because this is a novel coronavirus and we’re still learning about the details. Scientists aren’t always going to speak with one voice or be unified in their recommendations, the data aren’t always going to be clear, and different variants will have different characteristics.

But this administration keeps pulling muscles patting itself on the back for “following the science,” even though it blatantly ignores the science when the science is politically inconvenient. This goes back to the start, when Biden promised to “shut down” a virus that researchers have long suspected was likely to become endemic — that is, never going away completely, but becoming something akin to the winter flu season.

Then shortly after taking office, Walensky declared that, “Schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.” And Jen Psaki, channeling the anger of the teachers’ unions, absurdly contended that Walensky was not speaking as CDC director when she said that, but only “spoke to this in her personal capacity.”

Then, for her first few months in office, Walensky insisted that students needed to remain six feet apart while in school. But we know that in July 2020, the Newton, Mass., school district was struggling with the familiar issues of reopening schools and how to keep a safe distance between people, and reached out to Walensky, asking if it was safe to reopen the schools while keeping everyone three feet apart instead of six. Walensky replied that, “I do think if people are masked it is quite safe and much more practical to be at 3 feet. I think this is very viable for the middle/high schools and even late grade schools and would improve the feasibility. I suspect you may want to be at 6f for some of the very young kids who can’t mask.” After a few months, the CDC signed off on the three-feet recommendation.

On March 29, Walensky came out with a rather eye-opening dire warning. “I’m going to pause here, I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom. We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope, but right now I’m scared.” It was difficult to see where Walensky’s vision of doom was coming from, as the national vaccination effort had kicked into high gear, and cases and deaths were declining. Ironically, late March was the beginning of one of the country’s best stretches of the pandemic, as cases and deaths declined and stayed low until mid July or so.

On March 30, Walensky declared on national television that, “Our data from the C.D.C. today suggests that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick. . . . And that it’s not just in the clinical trials, it’s also in real-world data.” But the next day, the CDC effectively said, “Wait, never mind.”

In May, the CDC declared that those who were fully vaccinated didn’t need to wear a mask or socially distance. By late July, the CDC had reversed course and recommended that fully vaccinated people wear masks in areas with high COVID-transmission rates.

Now Walensky is overruling her own advisory panel on the need for boosters — even though five weeks ago, she said that, “Data confirm that while protection against infection may decrease over time, protection against severe disease and hospitalization is currently holding up pretty well.” But that same day, she also warned that “We are concerned that the current strong protection against severe infection, hospitalization, and death could decrease in the months ahead,” and “In the context of these concerns, we are planning for Americas — Americans to receive booster shots, starting next month, to maximize vaccine-induced protection.”

Clearly, Walensky was convinced of the need for boosters by mid August, and in that same press conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci concurred: “The current immunological data that indicate that antibody levels decline over time; higher levels of antibody are associated with a higher level of efficacy; higher levels of antibody may be required to protect against Delta; and, as I showed you on this former slide, a booster mRNA immunization increases antibody titers by multiple-fold.”

So why are the advisory panels at the CDC and the FDA not seeing what Walensky and Fauci see as so obvious?

A Useful Little Illustration of How AOC Is Not the Lawmaker She Thinks She Is

It’s a small detail about the recent fight over the U.S. giving assistance to Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile-defense program, but a revealing one:

Bitter recriminations over the measure spilled onto the House floor on Thursday, as some progressive Democrats who were opposed called Israel an “apartheid state” and proponents hurled accusations of antisemitism. By the end, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a vocal critic of Israel who had come under scathing criticism from pro-Israel activists for refusing to back the measure, was in tears after switching her “no” vote to “present”. . . .

Minutes before the vote closed, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez tearfully huddled with her allies before switching her vote to “present.” The tableau underscored how wrenching the vote was for even outspoken progressives, who have been caught between their principles and the still powerful pro-Israel voices in their party. (A spokesman for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment on her change of position.)

First, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to keep the door open to challenging Chuck Schumer in the 2022 Democratic Senate primary.

Second, either you’re the kind of leader who stands on principle, even when it isn’t popular or could cause blowback to your career, or you aren’t. If you change your “no” vote to “present” after previously pledging to block weapons sales to Israel and having declared that U.S. arms sales to Israel have “directly contributed to the death, displacement and disenfranchisement of millions,” then you are as malleable as a lump of clay. In other words, AOC stands for her principles . . . until it gets difficult, and then she retreats. She is not that different from those moderates and centrist politicians whom she contends are spineless and weak and sell out “underserved communities.”

Third, if you’re the kind of member of Congress who does interviews all the time with institutions ranging from Meet the Press to Vanity Fair to Vogue to Rolling Stone to the Democratic Socialists of America; you’re constantly hosting Instagram chats, tweeting, etc.; and you refuse to comment on changing your position on a big controversial vote . . . you are not really the honest, accessible, relatable open book that you like to think you are.

An Update on History’s Greatest Monster

Susan Glasser, writing in The New Yorker:

The Republicans and their conservative allies in the commentariat, including some notable Never Trumpers, think so. Jim Geraghty, in National Review, wrote this week that Biden is both “flailing” and “failing,” and that the President and his Administration are “naïve, unprepared, slow-footed, and in over their heads.” Matt Lewis, in the Daily Beast, wrote something similar, under the headline “It Took Biden 48 Years to Be President and 8 Months to [F***] It Up.” At least Geraghty and Lewis gave Biden until this week.

I’m allegedly premature in my judgment, but Glasser goes on to note that:

“The warning lights are undoubtedly flashing red for Biden right now . . . it seems that the table stakes for the Biden Presidency — and the country — may finally have become too big this week, even for diehard Biden supporters. No wonder. Biden’s entire legislative agenda is tied up in a September snarl on Capitol Hill, as Democrats feud over how to proceed. In the meantime, the country is averaging more than two thousand deaths per day in a pandemic that Biden promised would be all but over this summer. An immigration crisis, with thousands of Haitian refugees at the southern U.S. border, has liberals furious at the Administration’s Storm Trooper-esque tactics and conservatives in full Trumpian build-the-wall mode. France is so angry at the United States, for stealing away a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Australia, that it recalled its Ambassador, in a snit, for the first time ever. Oh, and the government may be forced to shut down after next Friday unless Congress passes a bill to stop it — a bill that Republicans vow to oppose. In October, the U.S. is set to run out of credit unless Congress raises the debt-ceiling limit, and Republicans vow to oppose that, too. The general feeling among Democrats these days: Is it time to panic yet?

. . . one important reason that Biden’s numbers have dropped so much over all is that independents are losing faith — independents whose votes in key states very likely gave Biden the White House. . . .

Many of those who now fear Biden’s Presidency is on the line include Democrats who support his goals but fear that he will not deliver. The difficult truth is that, should Congress fail to pass Biden’s bills this fall, it would, in fact, be the kind of political blow that few new Presidents can recover from. . . .

The Biden Presidency, on both the foreign and domestic fronts, remains a jumble of aspirations—and retains a haze of uncertainty about how to achieve them. Much of his political problem, it seems to me, is a vast gap between his articulated goals and what is politically possible.”

As I read through Glasser’s column, I kept waiting for the counterevidence, refuting my contention that Biden is both “flailing” and “failing,” and that the president and his administration are “naïve, unprepared, slow-footed, and in over their heads.” Maybe her editors accidently deleted those paragraphs.

Glasser’s big conclusion: “Maybe it will all work out. After a tense phone call with Biden, Emmanuel Macron is sending his Ambassador back to Washington; the two Presidents seem to be in the ‘at least they’re talking’ stage of the spat.”

The president is talking to the French president on the phone, everyone! Relax, everything’s going to turn out fine!

I suspect the problem is not that what I am saying is incorrect; I suspect the problem is that in Susan Glasser’s worldview, I’m not the kind of person who is supposed to be correct.

ADDENDUM: Because it should be repeated every day until it is resolved, more than three weeks after the last U.S. soldier departed Afghanistan, an unknown number of American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

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