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June 14, 2023 COVID News

COVID

CDC’s Walensky Dodges Censorship Question, Defends COVID Vaccines During Contentious Pandemic Hearing

In testimony Tuesday before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, Dr. Rochelle Walensky defended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic-related policies and statements, including guidance on school closures, statements that the vaccinated did not spread COVID-19, masking guidance, the lab-leak theory and nursing home deaths.

In a two-hour grilling before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Tuesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sidestepped a barrage of questions regarding the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

In sometimes contentious testimony, Walensky, whose term as CDC director ends June 30, defended the government’s actions in a range of areas, including guidance on school closures, statements that the vaccinated did not spread COVID-19, social media censorship, masking guidance, the lab-leak theory and nursing home deaths.

Walensky also admitted the agency did not collect data from hospitals on the number of patients who were vaccinated against COVID-19 versus those who weren’t — but used the pandemic as an opportunity to call for more data-collection powers for the CDC, one of several recommendations she made as the basis for granting the agency more money and authority.

Walensky faced “predictable shots” from Republican lawmakers, who “had been asking Walensky to testify for two months,” STAT reported. Some said they believed she came away from the hearing “relatively unscathed,” having “sidestepped thorny issues” about gain-of-function research and the CDC’s relationship with social media companies.

However, other Republicans said they believe Walensky was called out on several contradictions and responses they saw as being evasive.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee, said in his opening statement that he “was hopeful that the pandemic could be a unifying force for our country and for the world,” but that what should have and could have united our country instead “drove division.”

“Unfortunately, in many ways, our public health leadership did not rise to the occasion,” Wenstrup said.

Walensky used her opening testimony to highlight what she described as the CDC’s and COVID-19 vaccines’ successes and to call for more funding and authority for the agency.

“The United States did not have an established infrastructure to distribute and administer vaccines to adults,” she said. “It was up to CDC, working closely with our public and private sector partners, to stand up this infrastructure to support safe, equitable and efficient access for over 330 million Americans.”

She added:

“As a nation, we have mourned the loss of more than 1.1 million family members, neighbors, colleagues and friends from COVID-19. And because of the work of this agency and public health and healthcare workers across the country in all of our communities, we have saved millions of lives.”

Walensky also advocated for Congress to grant expanded authority to the CDC as part of upcoming pandemic preparedness legislation and the 2024 spending bill. As Roll Call reported, this “may be difficult to achieve” in a Republican-controlled House.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, praised Walensky for guiding what was, in his words, a “beleaguered agency” and for getting millions of Americans vaccinated.

“Her steadfast leadership mobilized the most successful vaccination campaign in our nation’s history,” Ruiz said, in a statement that matched the generally positive treatment Walensky received from Democrat lawmakers during the hearing.

Did CDC issue statements for ‘political purposes?’

Wenstrup, in his introductory statements, referred to remarks Walensky made on March 29, 2021, when she said “Our data from the CDC today suggests … that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick” — remarks a CDC spokesperson walked back three days later.

He also referred to July 21, 2021, remarks by President Biden, who said, “If you are vaccinated, you are not going to be hospitalized, you are not going to be in the intensive care unit and you are not going to die.”

“This raises the question of whether the science supported what you were publicly saying,” Wenstrup said in his remarks, adding that the committee was “interested in hearing” if the data CDC had at the time supported such statements or if they were made “for political purposes.”

During her testimony, Walensky said that “at the time, CDC was releasing increasing data, showing the immense protection of vaccines against severe disease, hospitalization and death.”

When asked by Wenstrup if, by the time of her March 29, 2021, statement, “there were vaccinated Americans that were hospitalized,” Walensky conceded the CDC lacked such data — and still does today.

“We still, to this day, do not have data on people who are coming into the hospitals who are vaccinated,” she said. “That is a data point that we have lacked.”

Later in her testimony, Walensky added, “At a national level, we get hospitalization data, we get hospitalization for COVID data, but at a national level we have never been able to get hospitalization, vaccination and COVID.”

Walensky may have been willing to concede this point as, during her opening remarks, she said that despite “great strides” having been made “in our ability to collect real-time, high-quality information,” the CDC “will need a legislative change to modernize the public health data policy framework,” in order to better collect data.

She also further qualified her March 2021 statements by claiming:

“We can get back to the generalities that you speak to … where I said, they can’t carry the virus, meaning they can’t transmit it to others. That was true for the alpha variant at the time that I said it.

“Even those who might have had a positive test, who might have had asymptomatic infection, a breakthrough asymptomatic infection, were not transmitting that virus to anyone else.”

When pressed on that point by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Walensky said, “In March of 2021, the vast majority of data demonstrated that the vast majority of people were not getting infected if they were vaccinated.”

“That’s not what you said,” Jordan responded. “You didn’t say the vast majority of people. You said vaccinated people do not carry the virus.”

When asked by Jordan if this was accurate, Walensky said, “It was generally accurate.”

“Generally accurate,” Jordan replied. “Why not just be accurate? Why not just tell the American people the truth? Why did you and the Biden administration mislead the American people?”

Jordan also asked about the accuracy of statements Walensky made on May 19, 2021, claiming those who get infected with COVID-19 post-vaccination can’t transmit it to others.

Again, Walensky said her statements were “generally true.”

Responding to a related question by Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) about statements Walensky made about a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Walensky attempted to walk back her remarks:

“I don’t think I said it exactly that way. … I would dispute the word ‘contradictory.’ What happened over time is that vaccine effectiveness waned, and we got a new subvariant that behaved differently in terms of how our vaccines worked. So, it evolved over time. Our science changed over time. We learned more over time, and we had a new variant over time. And with that, it is my responsibility as the CDC director to update the American people with the newest science.

“What I meant by the ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’ is that the people who were dying were largely the unvaccinated. And the whole point was to say if you want to prevent severe disease and death, you should get vaccinated.

“I run a science-based agency. I’m a scientist, and the statements I made are defended by the science.”

Walensky also used her opening remarks to promote the development of an adult vaccine infrastructure.

“Establishing a robust infrastructure through a ‘Vaccines for Adults’ program for uninsured persons, similar to what exists in the ‘Vaccines for Children’ program, will support response readiness by reducing vaccination coverage disparities, improving outbreak control of vaccine-preventable diseases, and enhancing the infrastructure needed for responding to future pandemics,” she said.

In response to a question by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Walensky said the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) “is intended to have an over-reporting” of any “untoward event” following vaccination, using an analogy of getting hit by a truck after vaccination and reporting the incident to VAERS.

“We review all of the things that come into the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System,” Walensky said, addressing Greene. “I’d be happy to have our staff educate your staff on the work.”

Greene responded, “I don’t want my staff educated. You should educate the American people about what you’ve done with 1.5 million reports because they feel like you’ve done nothing and continue to say ‘safe and effective.’”

Studies have shown VAERS records only 1% of actual vaccine adverse events.

What role did second-largest teachers union play in school closings?

During her opening remarks, Walensky praised the CDC under her leadership for developing “layered mitigation strategies” that allowed schools to “be opened safely … even while we waited for increased vaccine access,” adding that “We continued to develop and follow the science.”

But in his opening statement, Wenstrup called Walensky’s past guidance on school reopenings “divisive and confusing.”

“On February 3, 2021, you said, ‘There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,’” he said. “The next day, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, ‘Dr. Walensky spoke to this in her personal capacity.’”

“That’s interesting,” Wenstrup said. “You were speaking at a White House press briefing when you made that statement. The official CDC logo was behind you. And the transcript is on the White House website. Doesn’t sound like ‘personal capacity’ to me. Seems like the Biden administration just disagreed with what you were saying.”

When Wenstrup directly asked Walensky if she had made those remarks in her personal capacity, she first attempted to sidestep the question, but later stated “Whenever I have been speaking to Congress, to the media, at press conferences during my tenure at CDC, I have been speaking in my professional capacity.”

When asked why the White House would contradict her statements, Walensky said “That is something I can’t speculate to. I think you’ll have to ask them.”

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) also addressed school-related protocols, asking Walensky to admit that there was not enough COVID-19 transmission in school environments to justify their closure. To this, Walensky said her guidelines were supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Walensky’s communication with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), particularly in relation to school closures, was a prominent topic during the hearing.

In his opening remarks, Wenstrup said AFT President Randi Weingarten previously testified to having Walensky’s “direct phone number,” provided “line-by-line edits” to draft CDC guidance for schools, and that other CDC scientists “described AFT’s level of access as ‘uncommon.’”

When questioned, Walensky conceded she was in contact with the AFT and that it “was interested in having closure triggers” for schools. However, she said “They were not accepted … This was all about keeping schools open. This was not about triggers to close them.”

Wenstrup said that “Even though this specific edit was not accepted, the others that were have had severe consequences.”

AFT is the largest teachers’ union in the U.S., and was a staunch advocate of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and masks for schoolchildren. It partnered with NewsGuard — a for-profit “fact-checking” company with deep ties to Big Pharma — to help students in U.S. classrooms “navigate a sea of online disinformation.”

Meeks also questioned Walensky on whether she or the CDC reviewed studies from countries such as Sweden, which did not impose widespread school closures.

“There was a study subsequently from Sweden that demonstrated that Swedish schools that had in-person learning, their … teachers had twice the infection rate as those that had closed,” Walensky stated. “And I can also tell you by late spring that Sweden actually had overwhelmed hospitals and had ultimately decided to close the schools for people who were over the age of 13.”

A Swedish government commission that investigated the country’s COVID-19 response found its no-lockdown strategy was “fundamentally correct,” and defended the decision to keep schools open, noting the low levels of excess mortality in 2020 and 2021. It also concluded some locked-down countries had “significantly worse outcomes.”

Walensky sidesteps censorship accusations

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) accused Walensky and the CDC of working with social media platforms such as Meta — the parent company of Facebook — and Twitter, to censor medical information that contradicted establishment narratives.

Walensky consistently refused to provide direct responses on this point despite repeated questions.

“That topic is one that is under litigation in the courts so I will not be speaking to that,” Walensky said. “The most important thing that has gotten us out of this pandemic is our vaccine and how well they work and how safe they are.”

Walenksy said:

“It was really important that the American people understand how well they work and how safe [they are]. It is so very important to get correct factual information out to people to understand the overwhelming benefit of these vaccines.

“The most important thing that we were working towards at CDC is to get facts out to people so they understood in plain language … and favor vaccines because they were working, they were preventing severe disease and death.”

“That’s something that this committee is going to continue to investigate,” Comer said, referring to the example of the COVID-19 “lab-leak theory.”

“It turns out that some of the perspectives that the government censored, like the lab-leak theory, and some questions about the vaccine were correct all along,” he said. “With respect to censorship, censoring dissenting opinions is unacceptable. And that’s something else that this select committee needs to investigate.”

Walensky also told the committee the “lab-leak theory” is “something that you would have to speak to NIH [National Institutes of Health] about.”

Rep. Rich McCormick (R-Ga.), a practicing physician before he was elected to Congress, said he was “censored as a physician who treated thousands of COVID patients, by people on the internet, by people in government telling me I couldn’t express my professional opinion as a doctor and as a scientist,” adding that he was “threatened with my license.”

Walensky did not reply to McCormick’s statement.

McCormick also questioned Walensky as to whether “it was a good idea to send infected COVID patients back to the most vulnerable community of all, which is nursing homes.”

In three responses, Walensky said, “I’m not sure,” “I’m not familiar with that” and “I can’t speak to that. I was not aware of that,” before later stating:

“What was the alternative of them going there? What were the mitigation strategies? Did they have single rooms? … There were a lot of parameters that would affect my answer to that question.”

McCormick, in response, told Walensky “I think you might be a better politician than me right now.”

Did Biden administration try to prevent Walensky from testifying?

In his opening remarks, Wenstrup accused the Biden administration and the CDC of trying to prevent Walensky from testifying or trying to delay her testimony.

“Throughout the negotiation process, the Biden administration said there was insufficient time for you to prepare,” Wenstrup said. “This may even astonish you considering the select subcommittee provided nearly 10 weeks’ notice.”

“It took the threat of a subpoena for the Biden administration to finally allow you to attend this hearing,” he added. “We think that maybe you were willing the whole time. So, we thank you for being here today. It is, however, curious that the Biden administration tried so hard to hide you from the American people.”

One final contentious moment during the hearing came when Greene questioned Walensky about her future plans after her term as CDC director ends while taking shots at COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers.

“Now that you’re going to be leaving the CDC pretty soon, what job are you going to take?” Greene asked. “Are you going to be on the board of either Pfizer or Moderna because you’ve done one hell of a job in making sure that they’ve made a lot of money.”

Walensky responded that these companies would not be her future employers and that the CDC was not the government agency responsible for purchasing vaccines.

Walensky also took credit for restoring the agency’s credibility among the public, claiming “there is increased confidence in the CDC” and that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most Americans “hadn’t heard of the CDC.”

However, Jackson suggested that it is Walensky’s upcoming departure from the CDC that would mark an important milestone in restoring public trust in the agency.

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