WASHINGTON – The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defended the agency on Tuesday against allegations that federal scientists were too slow to update their pandemic control guidelines and were too conservative with their recommendations, particularly on wearing face masks .
At a Senate hearing with other leading federal health officials about the federal government’s pandemic response, Republicans accused CDC director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky to consider special interests in the agency’s guidelines for schools and not to recognize the low risk of outdoor activities transmission of the coronavirus.
They said the agency had lost the confidence of Americans who wanted to return to normal life.
Their grievances reflected mounting outrage – even among some public health experts – and the federal government eased its recommendations as states across the country wanted to reopen their economies.
The frustrations ranged from the practical suggestions that children should wear masks at camp to the fantastic suggestions the National Institutes of Health conspired with the Chinese about loading viruses, an accusation that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci described as “totally and completely wrong”. ”
And they came when the White House improved access to coronavirus vaccines with a new pledge from ride giants Uber and Lyft that President Biden said would offer free rides to and from tens of thousands of vaccination sites.
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, complained at the hearing that the CDC had allowed the American Federation of Teachers to improperly influence the reopening of their school, which undermined their academic integrity.
Dr. Walensky said that a change in school guidelines was a “mistake” – the draft guidelines failed to include materials to protect teachers with compromised immune systems. The back and forth is a normal part of the agency’s guideline-making process, she said, when agency scientists consider outside advice from industry experts. CDC scientists wrote the recommendations themselves, said Dr. Walensky.
Ms. Collins also accused the CDC of using incorrect data in their most recent outdoor mask guide. The agency announced last month that “less than 10 percent” of the broadcast was in the open air. According to statistics from infectious disease experts, this is a misleading exaggeration. Dr. Walensky said the CDC used a rigorous summary of studies in a prestigious medical publication, The Journal of Infectious Diseases, to support that figure.
“We have unnecessary barriers to school reopening that exaggerate the risk of outdoor broadcast and impractical restrictions on summer camps,” said Ms. Collins. “It’s important because it undermines public confidence in your recommendations and the recommendations that make sense.”
Dr. Walensky said the CDC is working to update its guidelines as more Americans are vaccinated and scientists gain new knowledge. The agency’s design process, which involved internal and external experts, was collaborative and responsive, she said.
Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican from Louisiana, told Dr. Walensky warned that the public will “start to ignore what you think is true” and warned of consequences if the CDC fails to update guidelines on American return to the office. He also accused the agency of being slow to acknowledge the minimal risk of outdoor transmission.
May 11, 2021 at 4:32 p.m. ET
“The American people have just lost patience with us,” he said.
As health officials defended the work of the Biden administration, the White House announced its latest moves to bolster the nation’s immunizations. Speaking to six governors from both parties, including Republicans from Ohio and Utah, Biden said the ridesharing was part of an aggressive new phase in the government’s efforts to combat hesitation and vaccine access.
The White House said Uber and Lyft would promote free travel until July 4th, the target date of Mr Biden’s goal of at least partially vaccinating 70 percent of adults.
Health officials said Americans are still eager to get vaccinated – providers administer about 2.19 million doses a day on average – but a lack of transportation has hampered access.
Tuesday’s Senate hearing was dominated by a discussion of the CDC’s guides. North Carolina Republican Senator Richard M. Burr linked the agency’s guidance process to the government’s ability to vaccinate more Americans.
“If we continue to fail on the trust they have in us to make the appropriate calls,” he said, “then we will fail.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said her state is still waiting for the CDC to update its cruise leadership, which threatened to destroy the state’s tourism industry.
She also said that federal mask requirements for transportation hubs are affecting the work of fishermen, who have been at greater risk than not wearing a mask but fear not following government orders.
“You are on a boat. The winds howl. Your mask is damp, ”said Ms. Murkowski. “Tell me how anyone thinks this is a reasonable and sound policy.”
On the other side of the United States, fishermen struggled with the same enforcement policies, said Senator Maggie Hassan, Democrat of New Hampshire. She said she met with some in her state who had been fully vaccinated but were gnawed by Coast Guard members for putting on masks.
Dr. Walensky said the agency had finalized guidelines to resolve the problem.
At one point Tuesday, Connecticut Democrat Senator Christopher S. Murphy stepped in to defend the testifying officials.
“We suffered for four years with a president who literally made up something about this virus and simplified history over and over,” he said. “We still have a lot to learn. In all honesty, I appreciate the fact that today we have leaders who recognize that we still have information gaps who occasionally err on the caution side to save lives. “
The hearing took several heated detours to counter allegations that the National Institutes of Health, in which Dr. Fauci is a top official who supported research in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where some senior Trump administration officials alleged the novel coronavirus may have leaked. Most scientists agree that the coronavirus most likely occurred in nature and spread from animals to humans.
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, named for his sparring with Dr. Fauci is known to have accused the government’s leading infectious disease expert of supporting an American scientist’s collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The institute houses a state-of-the-art laboratory known for its research on coronaviruses.
Dr. Fauci quickly turned down the proposal for what is known as the gain of function research, saying the NIH never supported such work there.
Katie Rogers contributed to the coverage.