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CDC chief says she'll work to comply with upcoming Republican probes

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/8/2022 Rachel Roubein, McKenzie Beard

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Today’s edition: The Biden administration is launching a national dashboard tracking nonfatal opioid overdoses. Congress’s impending rollback of the military’s covid vaccine mandate is frustrating the Pentagon. But first … 

Rochelle Walensky says she’s happy to respond to “reasonable and rational” questions about the pandemic response

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies before the Senate’s health committee earlier this year. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post) © Sarah Silbiger/For The Washington Post CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies before the Senate’s health committee earlier this year. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she’ll aim to comply with the flurry of probes House Republicans are planning to launch next year into the Biden administration’s pandemic response. 

“I am a scientist, physician, public health servant of the country,” Walensky said in an interview yesterday with Washington Post staff. “To the extent that there are reasonable and rational questions that are coming my way, and that I can be of service in answering those, I'd be happy to.”

Key GOP leaders have been open about plans to scrutinize everything from the origins of covid-19 to federal funds supporting research done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Walensky’s agency is high on the list of the party’s oversight priorities, as House Republicans deeply skeptical of the nation’s scientists will soon have the power to compel testimony and obtain documents for the first time since the pandemic began.

Yesterday marked the two-year anniversary of President Biden selecting Walensky, a widely respected infectious-disease specialist, to lead the nation’s public health agency. During her tenure, she has come under fire from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers for failing to clearly communicate the CDC’s shifting pandemic guidance — critiques that could get renewed attention amid GOP investigations. 

The details

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) — who was officially selected yesterday to lead the chamber’s chief investigative committee — called the CDC a “deeply flawed agency” in a recent statement to The Health 202. He pledged to conduct oversight of the CDC in an effort to help other panels of jurisdiction craft new policies. 

During the interview, Walensky at times defended the sprawling agency, saying there are widespread misperceptions over the CDC’s powers. Ahead of the probes, the CDC chief said she’s been working to educate members on the authorities available to the agency and where lawmakers could help. 

For instance: The agency lacks the power to offer hazard and danger pay, Walensky said, citing the inability to grant hazard pay to those working on the front lines in Uganda on Ebola. The CDC chief also said the agency doesn’t have direct hiring authority to speed up the hiring process for hard-to-fill positions or during an emergency.

“Even as I've talked to members on both sides of the aisle, [they] didn't really recognize that our hands are tied,” Walensky said. 

She repeatedly emphasized the agency lacks the authority to mandate data reporting from states and other jurisdictions. Messy and incomplete data hobbled the federal government’s pandemic response, and the agency has received consistent criticism for failing to be agile, including not quickly sharing the real-time data it has collected. 

The GOP oversight will come as Walensky has recently sought a revamp of the agency’s culture based on an internal review she ordered in April. Over the summer, Walensky acknowledged the agency’s shortcomings and announced plans to make the CDC more nimble and accountable, including by releasing scientific findings faster and issuing clearer recommendations. 

On Capitol Hill

The key question is, what will such GOP probes bring? Some experts have told us that some of it will likely amount to putting points on the political scoreboard, while other efforts may focus on trying to understand the White House’s decision-making. 

Anand Parekh, the chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said his overall feeling is that oversight could be productive if lawmakers focus on how to strengthen public health, preparedness and the agency. But whether it will be is an open question. 

Tom Frieden, the CDC director under former president Barack Obama, knows what it’s like to get scolded on Capitol Hill. Amid congressional probes, he said it’s imperative to be “honest about the mistakes that were made.” 

  • “When it comes to Congress, it is important that there is a better understanding of how CDC works, what it does, what the strengths and limitations are,” said Frieden, chief executive of Resolve to Save Lives, a global health initiative. “You hope for more sincere fact-finding than sensationalist grandstanding.”


On tap tomorrow: The House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis will release its final report under Democratic control and announce plans for a hearing and business meeting. A panel spokesperson said the committee report will include new information procured during the committee’s investigations and issue recommendations on how to better prepare for future public health emergencies. 

From our reporters' notebooks

Our colleague Meryl Kornfield sends us this news out of the nation’s drug policy office:

New this a.m.: The White House is launching a national dashboard of nonfatal opioid overdoses today as a first-of-its-kind attempt to publicly alert communities at risk of deadly drugs.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy, partnering with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, shared the online tracker, which uses electronic patient care records from EMS reports to provide an accounting of overdoses that don't end in death on the state and county levels. The dashboard offers the fullest look yet of the nation's total opioid overdose count, tallying more than 182,000 in the last 12 months.

This data could help officials determine where to send the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and other lifesaving services, White House drug czar Rahul Gupta told reporters. It “allows us to provide first responders, clinicians and policymakers with real-time, actionable information that will improve our responses and ultimately save lives,” he said.

The database also includes the average number of times each patient receives naloxone, how long it takes paramedics to reach the patient and the percent of patients who aren’t hospitalized. The dashboard will be updated every Monday, lagging two weeks behind real time.

Agency alert

Pentagon frustrated at likely rollback of military vaccine mandate

The Biden administration remains firmly against repealing the military’s coronavirus vaccine mandate. (Ted S. Warren/AP) © Ted S. Warren/AP The Biden administration remains firmly against repealing the military’s coronavirus vaccine mandate. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

The White House is fuming at the near-certainty that Congress will strip away the military’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for service members. But top officials stopped short of saying whether Biden’s signature on the must-pass defense authorization bill would be in doubt as a result of the rollback, our colleagues Dan Lamothe, Alex Horton and Karoun Demirjian report. 

The looming reversal — spurred by Republicans who had threatened to block passage of the $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act — creates a rat’s nest for the Pentagon. If the bill is signed into law, commanders whose job it was to enforce the mandate will face the onerous task of assessing whether, and how, to allow those already separated from the military for refusing to follow orders back into uniform. 

  • Nearly 8,500 service members have been dismissed for refusing to get vaccinated, according to the most recent service data. 
  • Managing overseas deployments, especially in countries that require visitors to be vaccinated, will create burdensome logistical headaches as well, officials said. 

The agreement comes despite opposition from both Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who warned that rolling back the policy could undermine the military’s readiness and endanger national security. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration believes repealing the mandate is a mistake.

Privately, some military personnel were even more pointed. “I look like a clown now,” said a Navy officer who had implored the 2,000 soldiers under his command to get the vaccine, intimating that, by reversing the mandate, lawmakers had weakened the military’s ability to enforce and maintain good order and discipline. “My sailors will have a hard time trusting me in the future when I say that some controversial policy must be complied with,” the officer added. 

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.):

On the Hill

Senate Democrats probe pandemic preparedness

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) led the investigation into the federal government’s pandemic response. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters) © Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) led the investigation into the federal government’s pandemic response. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters)

New this a.m.: Democratic staff on the Senate's chief oversight committee are recommending a slew of changes for the federal government to better prepare for the next public health emergency, such as clarifying agency roles in pandemic preparedness and response as well as modernizing the nation’s surveillance systems for infectious diseases. 

The recommendations are part of a sweeping, 241-page report published this morning, where Democrats on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs conclude that the United States has failed to sufficiently invest in public health preparedness across multiple administrations despite repeated warnings. It also faulted the Trump administration for an initial federal response that “did not reflect the severity of the crisis and ultimately failed to effectively mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Other recommendations include reorganizing the Department of Health and Human Services, reforming the Strategic National Stockpile at the federal and state level, and standardizing the country’s health data collection and reporting processes. 

What we’re watching: Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the committee’s chairman, said the path forward for congressional action following the report is unclear, but he mentioned strengthening the nation’s supply chain as prime for potential bipartisan legislation. 

In other health news

  • The Biden administration said in a court filing yesterday that it plans to appeal a federal judge’s ruling striking down the use of a pandemic-era border expulsion policy known as Title 42. Earlier this year, the CDC had sought to terminate the order.
  • Top House and Senate Democrats are calling for a boost in funding for the Social Security Administration to increase staffing, improve technology and expand other investments, after The Post’s Lisa Rein detailed a crisis at the little-known state offices that process Americans’ disability benefit applications.
  • Pfizer announced yesterday that the Food and Drug Administration will fast track its review of the company’s application for its RSV vaccine for older adults, and said the agency is expected to issue a decision by May. 
  • Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the onetime second-in-command to disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, was sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison for wire fraud as the saga of the blood-testing start-up draws to a close, our colleague Rachel Lerman writes. 

Health reads

What bodybuilders do to their bodies — and brains (By Bonnie Berkowitz and William Neff l The Washington Post)

ARPA-H’s new director wants to go on a hiring spree (By Sarah Owermohle | Stat )

Organization leading Covax could end the vaccine-sharing initiative (By Claire Parker | The Washington Post)

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.


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