Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky testifies before Congress in November.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky testifies before Congress in November. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After Communication Confusion, CDC Holds Solo Press Briefing

The CDC director anticipates Friday’s briefing will be “the first of many.” 

After much confusion over recent changes to guidance for handling coronavirus cases, the U.S. public health agency held a solo briefing on Friday, which the director anticipated would be “the first of many.” 

The guidance change in late December on isolation for those who test positive for COVID-19 caused confusion, especially as it relates to schools and health care employees, and is part of a larger string of messaging challenges the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has faced, as The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The report notes that the agency hasn’t had regular news conferences since former President Trump stopped them in early 2020. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is part of the Biden administration’s regular coronavirus briefings, but the last time the CDC gave a solo briefing was over the summer.

“We’re in an unprecedented time with the speed of Omicron cases rising and we are working really hard to get information to the American public and balancing that with the realities of what we’re all living with,” said Walensky, in response to a question during the briefing on Friday. She said over the last year she has taken reporters’ questions in over 80 briefings.

“But I hear that you are interested in hearing from the CDC independently and we are eager to answer your questions and I will continue to engage with you,” Walensky continued. “I anticipate this will be the first of many briefings and I very much look forward to them.”

On December 27, the CDC cut its recommended isolation time for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and are either asymptomatic or recovered from 10 to five days. Then for the next five days those individuals should wear masks around others, the agency said. After backlash that it did not include a testing component, the CDC issued an update on January 4 saying, “if an individual has access to a test and wants to test, the best approach is to use an antigen test towards the end of the 5-day isolation period.” 

The way the change in guidance was communicated and continued lack of a firm testing recommendation have caused a stir as the Omicron variant rages throughout the United States. Social media platforms, like Twitter and Instagram, also exploded with “the CDC says” memes poking fun at the CDC’s alleged hands-off approach. 

During the briefing on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked if President Biden still has confidence in the CDC after the confusion over its recent guidance on isolation. “He has confidence in the scientific expertise, the medical expertise of the team at the CDC. And he believes the American people have a desire, a need for us to address this pandemic, led by data and science,” she replied. “That's what he's going to continue to rely on.”

Walensky, who was chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School before becoming CDC director and has no prior government experience, has been seeking the help of a Democratic media consultant in recent months to help improve her communication skills, according to CNN

Another question asked during the briefing on Friday was about reports of burnout among the CDC employees working on the coronavirus response team and what the agency is doing about it. 

“This has been a hard several years for the people at this agency” as well as the health care and public workforces overall, Walensky said. For CDC employees, “I have been working hard to ensure that people have adequate time away, that we are rotating people through the response, that we are providing data in real time, but only the data that are needed in real time, so that people can actually take the time that they need.”

Dr. Henry Walke, co-lead of the CDC’s expanding testing and diagnostics work group for the COVID-19 response, also spoke on the matter during Friday’s press call. 

 “I think we’re all proud to serve. This is the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes, so yes it’s exhausting and it is challenging, but wow,” he said. “I mean this is the time to all lean in and I think that’s the general feeling across the agency. That this is a huge challenge, but we’re just proud to be part of it.”

Government Executive asked the Office of Management and Budget, part of the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, on Friday if the task force plans to update its guidance for federal agencies on quarantine, isolation or anything else to reflect recent CDC changes and if the CDC's messaging has created any confusion for agencies that it seeks to clarify. 

An OMB official said on background: “Agencies are working to update their quarantine and isolation safety protocols to reflect the new CDC guidance.” The task force sent an email to agencies on December 27 recapping what the CDC said, among other things. As of Friday afternoon, the most recent update on the task force’s website was from December 9. 

Also, the “task force will issue new [frequently asked questions and answers] on this topic in the coming days, and the task force will provide to agency COVID-19 Coordination Teams information for agencies to incorporate into their COVID-19 Workplace Safety Plans,” said the email shared with Government Executive. “Agencies should not delay, however, in updating their safety protocols related to quarantine and isolation immediately to reflect the updated CDC guidance. Agencies also should also communicate those updated protocols to their employees.” 

The Defense Department issued updated guidance on Friday that covers protocols for exposure to coronavirus or positive cases, cleaning and management considerations, and other matters. 

As for booster shots “agencies can at their discretion take steps to maintain information about whether employees have been boosted, including collection of documentation of booster shots from employees,” said the task force email. Walensky said during a COVID-19 briefing earlier this week that the definition of “fully vaccinated” will not be amended to include booster shots.