WASHINGTON — President Biden on Wednesday defended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, amid mounting criticism of the agency’s repeated struggles to communicate basic public health guidance.
But instead of conceding that the agency is fundamentally flawed, or that his top health officials have underperformed, Biden attributed the communications issues to the ever-changing nature of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of science itself.
“The messages, to the extent they’ve been confusing — it’s because the scientists, they’re learning more,” Biden said during a nearly two-hour press conference.
At no point, though, did the president acknowledge that some elements of his administration’s pandemic response have little to do with evolving science. Instead, his remarks echoed a consistent refrain of CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, and of the public health community more broadly: That it’s nearly impossible to issue good guidance without good facts.
Indeed, public health officials have dealt with a constantly changing landscape since Covid-19 was first observed in China in late 2019. Thanks to researchers across the world working at breakneck speed, experts learn more almost every day about how Covid spreads, the effectiveness of masks and vaccines, the characteristics of new viral variants, and which individuals are most vulnerable to severe disease and death.
Biden acknowledged, unprompted, that the CDC has borne the brunt of criticism. But, in defending Walensky, he relied on the same rationale — that she’s learning on the job.
“The one piece that’s gotten a lot of attention is the communications capacity of the CDC,” he said. “Well, she came along and said: ‘I’m a scientist, and I’m learning, I’m learning how to deal with stating what is the case that we’ve observed.’”
In many cases, Biden’s defense rings true. Walensky weathered heavy criticism, for instance, for issuing new mask guidelines in early summer, only to reverse course in light of the emerging Delta variant.
Biden’s comments, however, failed to concede that his administration’s most calamitous missteps have come when its guidance defied both settled science and common sense.
It took the CDC, for instance, nearly two years to acknowledge what Americans have long concluded: That surgical masks or N95 respirators are more effective at preventing Covid than loose-fitting pieces of cloth.
Three weeks ago, the agency changed its guidelines for people who test positive for Covid-19, granting them permission to end their self-isolation period after five days — even without a negative test, so long as they are “asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving.” (Data now show that many people remain infectious past five days, and in fact, that the fifth and sixth days after symptom onset are often among the most infectious).
And as recently as last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki openly mocked the concept of sending out at-home Covid tests by mail, free of charge, asking sarcastically at a press conference: “Should we just send one to every American?” After immense criticism, the White House did a 180 — registration to receive free Covid-19 tests opened Tuesday.
The president never allowed that his pandemic response team — namely Walensky, chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients — had fallen short.
“This is an unfolding story,” Biden said. “It’s the nature of the way diseases spread.”
Biden went further, too. At one point, he appeared to suggest that the media was overly focused on the negative aspects of his administration’s pandemic response, and was ignoring, for instance, the record-setting pace of vaccine development. (Pfizer and Moderna, the two largest U.S. vaccine manufacturers, developed, tested, and received authorization for their immunizations during President Trump’s administration, not Biden’s.)
“Think about how astounding it was, within the time frame it took, to be able to come up with a vaccine,” Biden said. “You used to write about that. Pretty amazing how rapidly they came up with a vaccine that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
But he conceded that the vaccine, of course, wasn’t a cure-all.
“Did everything get right?” he asked. “No. And by the way …”
He didn’t elaborate.