The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held only two telebriefings in 2021. That lack of transparency has prompted criticism — and a pledge from director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to be more open.



Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control did something it has not done in a while. Its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, held a telephone briefing. In recent days, there has been growing criticism over how and how frequently the agency communicates with the public. Walensky said she's gotten the message.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: So I anticipate that this will be the first of many briefings, and I very much look forward to them.

MARTIN: Until now, CDC'S career scientists have kept largely silent even as the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports it hasn't always been this way.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Historically, in a public health crisis, CDC would hold regular press briefings to tell the public what was going on and what they needed to do. Two years ago, when a new coronavirus was first reported in China, CDC appeared to be using that playbook.


BEN HAYNES: And thank you all for joining us for today's telebriefing regarding the 2019 novel coronavirus and proactive...

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is the agency's first telebriefing on the subject in mid-January 2020. It was led by Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.


NANCY MESSONNIER: China has reported 45 cases to date. The most recent four cases were just reported within the past hour or two.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: These briefings continued every few days until this memorable moment on February 25, 2020, when Messonnier said, this could be bad.


MESSONNIER: I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that while I didn't think that they were at risk right now, we, as a family, need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The stock market crashed. Then President Trump was furious. There were reports he wanted her fired. The next day, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the White House coronavirus task force, and COVID briefings became a televised White House affair. The CDC telebriefings did continue for a while occasionally. When President Biden came in, he promised repeatedly to beat the pandemic by restoring public trust.


JOE BIDEN: Scientists and public health experts will speak directly to you. That's why you're going to be hearing a lot more from Dr. Fauci again, not from the president but from the real, genuine experts and scientists.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Certainly, Americans have heard a lot from Dr. Anthony Fauci of NIH, the president's chief medical adviser, and CDC's Director Walensky. Both are frequent guests on TV news shows and in the White House COVID-19 response briefings. But under Biden, CDC and its career scientists remain sidelined. CDC has actually done fewer telebriefings on the pandemic under President Biden. In 2020, under President Trump, there were around two dozen CDC telebriefings on the pandemic. In 2021, under Biden, there were two. Dr. Tom Frieden, who directed the agency under Obama, says that has been a problem.

TOM FRIEDEN: The fact is there are dedicated scientists at CDC who are the world's experts in a lot of these issues, and they need to be speaking directly to the public along with Dr. Walensky.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at NYU, agrees that it's important to hear from CDC as career scientists, the subject-matter experts.

CELINE GOUNDER: What is the science that they're doing? How do they go about it? What is their process? I think there is something to be said for also just putting a human face on some of this - not these faceless bureaucrats but, like, real people. And I think that's been a bit of a lost opportunity.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One overriding issue may be a clash between politics and public health. Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale, says the administration seems to be treating the pandemic as a political problem that has to be managed in a political way.

GREGG GONSALVES: There needs to be a lot more openness and transparency from the White House, and they need to let their scientists off the leash.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Political messages need to be simple, but that doesn't work for infectious disease messaging, says Glen Nowak. He's a professor at the University of Georgia and the former director of CDC media relations.

GLEN NOWAK: The situation is much more dynamic. Viruses change a lot and can change in ways that render your recommendations not so effective.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But in his 14 years at the agency, he says, across Democratic and Republican administrations, the trend has been for the White House to exert more and more strict control over CDC messaging.

NOWAK: You have to be willing to trust that the scientists and the experts who are doing those briefings are going to do what needs to be done, right? And this administration is not unique in terms of their willingness to trust career scientists.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Which is to say they don't. They don't appear to trust them.

NOWAK: (Laughter) Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Nowak says trust is hard, especially between career staff and political appointees. He says Walensky's plan to go back to regular briefings is a helpful development. Frieden agrees. He says he hopes this will be an inflection point in rebuilding confidence in CDC. CDC didn't answer NPR's question about how frequent these briefings will be. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.