It Wasn’t Just Walensky

Outgoing CDC director Rochelle Walensky has been making the rounds this week in the major dailies. I don’t think she’s said anything truly remarkable or unexpected, but it is a good opportunity to examine her abbreviated tenure.

When looking at Walensky, I think too many commentators make the mistake of thinking she was actually running the COVID response, when, in fact, it was being run out of the White House (and having the CDC based in Atlanta, despite what several Brain Genius Pundits think, really hurts the agency when it comes to influencing policy). She could have had more influence, but early in her tenure, she made a critical mistake, one from which she couldn’t recover.

If you remember the halcyon days of yore known as 2021, Year of Our Gritty, there was a large debate over testing and isolation. One important argument was over how long people should stay away from work, especially if they didn’t have access to testing. Walensky caved and agreed to far too short a period, especially for Delta and Omicron. She should have stuck to her guns, and told them that, without testing, we needed a longer waiting period. Of course, the Biden Administration, especially Zients, would have been furious, because they failed to ramp up at-home testing supplies*. But that’s Zients’ fault not hers, and a more experienced politician–and someone who understood that the CDC’s primary weapon is its credibility–would have made him eat a shit sandwich, instead of taking the fall for his fuck up.

But once that happened, the Biden administration knew they could roll her, and they did. Walensky didn’t help herself either–she wasn’t a very good communicator, and she said some very foolish things.

That said, it is clear, certainly in retrospect, that the ‘burden of proof’ within the Biden administration was on the need for intervention; if an affirmative case for intervention couldn’t be made with the data at hand, then that precaution would be abandoned. Because the CDC couldn’t marshal evidence quickly enough, along with bad timing (had these discussions occurred in late 2021, the need for COVID precautions would have been unavoidable, even for Zients and the Biden administration).

In other words, much of the crappy COVID response shouldn’t be laid at her feet, but at those who were really running the response, which is to say, the Biden administration**.

*It’s also worth reminding readers of Jen Psaki, the first ever recipient of the Mad Biologist’s Outstanding Yet Unintentional Contributions to Public Health award for snarking about sending people tests–after which, the administration was shamed into doing.

**Yes, the Biden administration is better than the Trump administration, but, as I’ve noted in multiple contexts, better than is not the same as good. Given the monthly death rates alone, Biden’s policies can’t be seen as successful.

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