Axios, CNN, WaPo: Let's face it, the CDC has a major credibility crisis

How good of them to notice! Most people discounted CDC and FDA credibility after they admitted to “noble lies” such as that on masking, but recently the CDC have stepped up their game on obvious incompetence and politicization. The impression of desperate flailing had already been made on many Americans prior to this, but now media outlets like Axios have sat up and taken notice:

While much of the unvaccinated population is unlikely to be persuaded by any messenger, large swaths of the public are still receptive to expert guidance, but federal health agencies, particularly the CDC, may be squandering their credibility with this population.

  • “The administration in general has lost the confidence of people who would be their natural supporters,” said Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert and former Biden administration advisory board member.

State of play: Months of convoluted guidance hit a breaking point over the winter holiday, when the CDC became a viral internet meme amongst frustrated Americans who could no longer take the agency’s guidance seriously.

  • The CDC’s new guidance on how long COVID patients should remain in isolation was mocked by thousands of internet meme-makers. The CDC responded by saying the changing guidelines are motivated by “fast-moving science.”
  • “It’s never good to be the butt of jokes,” former CDC director Tom Frieden said in an interview.

When that criticism comes from a former CDC director who served Barack Obama’s administration for its entire eight year run, that’s worth noting. And it’s also worth noting that this narrative of incompetence and discredit has expanded far beyond the social-media sphere and conservative media outlets. CNN media analyst Brian Stelter told his Reliable Sources audience yesterday that the CDC had indeed “turned into a punchline“:

This prompted Stelter to bring up an interview NBC’s Savannah Guthrie held with CDC director Rochelle Walensky several days ago in which Guthrie asked about the online mockery the CDC has been getting for their shifting public guidelines.

Stelter opined that Guthrie was “very much in touch with the public” during the interview because she recognizes that “the CDC has turned into a punchline.”

“It’s so sad, but it’s true, The CDC has turned into a punchline,” Stelter said. Noting that Guthrie called out the CDC’s “credibility crisis,” Stelter asked Darcy if part of the problem is people ignoring the “mixed messages” they hear from the CDC.

“That’s exactly right,” Darcy said. “We’re supposed to be getting information to these people, so when we’re messaging towards a very small group of people who are maybe taking the pandemic far more seriously than the average person, I think we’re not doing our jobs as effectively as we should be doing. I think we need to generalize the message.”

And just to round out the sudden media confidence-crisis cascade, Washington Post analyst Aaron Blake notes that Rochelle Walensky looks vastly overmatched as CDC director:

We learned Friday that Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has sought the counsel of a prominent media consultant amid struggles to craft a coherent and consistent message on the coronavirus.

It might be time for some more intensive sessions.

Even the same morning as that news was reported, Walensky appeared on ABC News and caused a stir by saying it was “really encouraging news” that 75 percent of people who were dying from the coronavirus had four or more comorbidities. This led to criticisms that she was trivializing the tens of millions of Americans who have such comorbidities. She tried to clean up that mess Sunday by tweeting that she “went into medicine . . . and public health to protect our most at-risk.”

Just a few hours earlier, though, Walensky had slipped up again — and on much the same topic.

The comorbidity remark also appeared to relate to current deaths in the Omicron wave among the vaccinated. The issue of comorbidities, though, is well known and thoroughly understood. Furthermore, most Americans probably have one comorbidity, be it weight control, chronic respiratory issues, age, immunity issues, smoking, etc. It’s not all that significant that 75% of all deaths, recent or overall, would involve multiple comorbidities, regardless of vaccination status. (Allahpundit will have more on this in a later post.)

However, the lack of correlation/causation data is yet another issue of CDC’s competence. They haven’t distinguished between correlated diagnoses and causative outcomes, in deaths or hospital admissions. Blake initially scoffs at that distinction but later notes that it’s more significant this year than last, especially given the widespread immunity in the US through either vaccinations, exposures, or both. And while there may be some nuance and overlap on correlation/causation on deaths, the CDC should have been able to collect that data on hospital admissions — and yet hasn’t done so, nor does it appear that Walensky is inclined to start. As I wrote earlier, that omission creates an environment for popular panic such as seen with the pediatric admission spike, which was almost certainly correlative and not causative but put everyone from Sonia Sotomayor on down on a “save the children!” hair-on-fire reaction until Anthony Fauci finally tamped it down.

In other words, this is not just a “messaging” issue. It’s a performance issue. The CDC has failed to produce the tests needed to manage variant waves despite a year of promises from the Biden administration that they would prioritize production. The CDC changes its guidances not on “fast-moving science” but quite obviously in reaction to the political environment. When they haven’t offered “noble lies,” they have taken their eyes off the ball in data management that could offer real-time assessments of variant-wave impacts.

The obvious first step in dealing with this crisis is to replace the people who have turned the CDC and the health-care bureaucratic establishment into a punchline. Send Fauci into retirement, cashier Walensky, and find professionals to deal with messaging while putting non-politicized scientists in charge of the CDC, FDA, and NIAID. The fact that the Biden administration hasn’t even taken those first steps speaks volumes about the political competence at the White House.