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Republicans grill outgoing CDC director as she prepares to exit

Several members accuse Walensky of misrepresenting vaccine effectiveness

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing in the Rayburn Building on Tuesday.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing in the Rayburn Building on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

During what’s likely to be her last appearance before skeptical congressional Republicans on Tuesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky once again asked for more data and workforce authorities — and, once again, she was sharply dismissed.

Her appearance before the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic may foreshadow what Mandy Cohen, who is expected to be President Joe Biden’s next pick for director, will face on Capitol Hill after Biden formally names her for the position as expected.

On Tuesday, Walensky once again faced the gantlet, with several Republicans on the committee accusing her of misrepresenting vaccine effectiveness by saying the vaccines were better at preventing COVID-19 spread than they actually were. 

Rep James R. Comer, R-Ky., quickly turned the conversation to social media censorship of vaccine information.

During the pandemic, many social platforms, such as Meta, formerly known as Facebook, banned vaccine misinformation and, oftentimes, conservative rhetoric about COVID-19. Comer accused the Biden administration of promoting misinformation by saying vaccines would prevent all hospitalizations and deaths, which was not true.  

Meanwhile, Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, told Walensky her upcoming resignation would be an important step in restoring trust in the agency. 

Democrats took a different approach, arguing that Walensky’s departure and the recent end of the COVID-19 public health emergency give the U.S. an opportunity to prepare for future pandemics. 

Committee ranking member Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., said Walensky inherited a “beleaguered agency” at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and was able to help get a record number of Americans vaccinated and turn the tide of the pandemic.

“Now that we are on the other side of this pandemic … we have the chance to right the wrongs of the previous administration by identifying and implementing real solutions that leave us better prepared in the event of another deadly virus,” Ruiz said, referring to the Trump White House.

The agency advocated for Congress to expand its authority and capabilities as part of upcoming pandemic preparedness legislation and the 2024 spending bill. 

But the latter in particular may be difficult to achieve — the subcommittee allocations that Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, rolled out to Republican panel members at a Monday evening meeting would, on paper, cut funding levels by nearly 30 percent for the Labor-HHS panel.

On Tuesday, Walensky, who said she has no professional plans after she leaves the agency at the end of the month, emphasized the need for more data and workforce authorities.

She told Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., that the agency doesn’t automatically receive race and ethnicity data or ZIP code data, and if they don’t have that information, they can’t target their efforts. Laughing, she said there has to be better technology than fax machines to send and receive this data. 

The United States also faces a public health worker shortage of roughly 80,000 people. Walensky said the agency needs more authorities to be nimble with what it has so it can respond to crises in real time, such as direct hire authorities, overtime and danger pay. 

For example, right now, if a CDC employee is responding to an Ebola outbreak, they do not receive any additional compensation despite the high-risk nature of the job.

Republicans also grilled Walensky about school closings and the CDC’s relationship with teachers unions. 

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, accused the agency of releasing confusing and sometimes blatantly false statements and asked her to admit that there was not enough transmission in schools, specifically elementary schools, to keep schools closed.

Walensky countered that her guidance was focused on getting schools open, and her guidelines were supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s so easy to go back and to be a Monday morning quarterback,” Mfume said.