Not again: CDC walks back Walensky's recommendation for vaccinating pregnant women

AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool

For those keeping score, this is the third time that a major pandemic pronouncement by the head of the CDC has had to be undone by some apparatchik because it went too far for the feds’ comfort. In February Walensky declared that schools could be reopened safely without waiting for all teachers to be vaccinated, which was true but ran counter to the White House’s prime directive of not pissing off the teachers’ unions. So Jen Psaki stood up at a White House briefing and claimed that Walensky had merely been speaking in her “personal capacity” in commenting on teachers.

Even though she made that comment at an official White House briefing.

A few months later Walensky got in trouble again when she declared that the data indicated that “vaccinated people do not carry the virus.” That was quickly walked back by the CDC for being an exaggeration, but it wasn’t much of one. In that case as in the previous one, Walensky seemed focused on reassuring the public that a particular risk of infection was small even at the expense of absolute precision. Although unvaccinated teachers would face some risk of infection in schools and vaccinated people do carry the virus to some degree, the risk in both cases was meager enough that she strained to accentuate the positive instead.

The rest of the bureaucracy prioritizes precision, particularly when it comes to even slight risk, over reassurance. They’re forever in “abundance of caution” mode.

The disconnect between the feds’ science arm and its head just happened again, according to CBS. And this time it had to do with a subject as sensitive as whether expecting moms should get vaccinated or not:

Speaking at a White House COVID-19 briefing on Friday, CDC head Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that the “CDC recommends that pregnant people receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” citing a new study that found no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines pose risk during pregnancy.

On Tuesday, the agency walked back that recommendation. In an email to CBS News, a CDC spokesperson said the CDC’s guidance for pregnant people had not changed from its March recommendation, which is that “pregnant people are eligible and can receive a COVID-19 vaccine” and clarified that the guidance “has always been and remains CDC’s recommendation.”

“If facing decisions about whether to receive a COVID-19 vaccine while pregnant, people should consider risk of exposure to COVID-19, the increased risk of severe infection while pregnant, the known benefits of vaccination, and the limited but growing evidence about the safety of COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy,” a CDC spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Some media outlets noticed on Friday that Walensky’s new “recommendation” wasn’t reflected on the CDC’s page about vaccinating pregnant women. (Sorry, I mean pregnant “people,” as the agency puts it.) Click and scroll through that page and you’ll find the CDC maintaining a position of studious neutrality about whether pregnant women should get the jab or not. “If you are pregnant, you may choose to receive a COVID-19 vaccine” is as far as they’ll go. Essentially they punt on the question by advising women to talk to their doctor about it. That’s their “recommendation,” not that women should go ahead and get the vaccine.

Which means we now have the head of the CDC telling women to get inoculated and her deputies saying, “Uhhh, figure it out with your obstetrician.” Sorry to all the expecting moms, I guess, who went out and got vaccinated this weekend on Walensky’s advice only to find that that’s not an official federal recommendation.

In her defense, though, shouldn’t the CDC take a position on whether the vaccine is “recommended” for pregnant women? They can caveat it as much as they want with warnings that women should speak to their doctors first, but the federal government’s most prestigious scientific agency should have some formal opinion on a matter as momentous as whether women who’ll soon give birth should be immunized or not. On the other hand, the CDC seems to have a general lag time of about a year between the moment its guidance might prove useful and the moment it’s finally prepared to issue that guidance. They were way late on declaring that the virus doesn’t transmit on surfaces, way late on safe physical spacing for students in schools, and way late on whether it’s safe to go maskless outdoors. They’ll be way late on recommending the vaccine for pregnant women too, long after millions of expecting moms have already rolled the dice by getting their shots. Someday we’ll figure out whether any of the advice issued by this agency actually benefits the public, but it won’t be today.