“The Takeout”: Dr. Leana Wen calls CDC messaging “frankly, very poor”

Washington — Former Baltimore health commissioner and emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen said a national COVID-19 vaccine mandate is needed since the “honor system” of self-reporting vaccine status has not worked, and that the Biden administration needs to rely on scientists beyond those in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make public health decisions related to the pandemic. 

On “The Takeout” podcast, Wen said that after the CDC updated its mask guidance in May and recommended that those who are vaccinated do not need to wear masks, its communications strategy was “frankly, very poor,” and the “honor system [of getting vaccinated before unmasking] did not work.” 

“The Biden administration was really uneasy and squeamish all along about this idea of vaccine verification,” Wen said, adding that since there is no universal verification system, “the concern is that the unvaccinated are masquerading as the vaccinated.”

With the rapid spread of the Delta variant around the U.S., Wen said that the Biden administration is “in a tough pickle” because President Biden has said his administration will follow the CDC’s evolving guidelines, a move that excludes other scientists across the government. This week, the White House reimposed mask mandates after the CDC updated its guidance to recommend that vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors in areas with “substantial or high transmission” of the coronavirus.

“There is this idea by the Biden administration that they have to blindly follow the CDC,” Wen said. “Following the science does not mean that you listen to only one scientific institution.”

Wen also likened getting the COVID-19 vaccine to drunk-driving laws, saying that all American adults have the right to drink at home and in private settings, but “don’t have the choice to get behind a wheel of a car intoxicated in a way that you could harm other people.”

As COVID continues to mutate, adding new Greek-letter variants to the COVID-19 vocabulary, Wen said that the “vast majority of mutations have no significance” but new dominant variants after Delta could have the potential to evade the protection provided from vaccines. Wen said the reason she is concerned about the ongoing Delta spread is that “the more viruses replicate, the more they mutate.”

“When you look to see where the mutations first originate, the ones of concern, they originated in South Africa and Brazil and India and the U.K. and places where at that time there were virus hotspots,” Wen said. “The more there are hot spots around the world, the more it’s going to be a problem with us here.”

Highlights from this week’s episode:

  • Wen on the CDC’s mask guidance this week: “The Biden administration was really uneasy and squeamish all along about this idea of vaccine verification … The concern is not with the vaccinated. The concern is that the unvaccinated are masquerading as the vaccinated. They are passing it on to one another. And that’s why a[n indoor] mask mandate makes sense to me.”

  • On mandating vaccines: “I understand that we are a country that’s about freedom and choice. But why is it that someone can choose to go into a crowded public space and infect others with a potentially dangerous fatal, extremely contagious illness? I understand that, you know, if you want to stay unvaccinated, that’s your choice. But if you now want to be coming into work, into work or other public settings, then you have an obligation to play by the rules. I mean, we let people drink at home and in private. Fine, that’s your choice. But you don’t have the choice to get behind a wheel of a car intoxicated in a way that you could harm other people. And I think it’s really time for us to start using that same kind of analogy to start talking about vaccines.”

  • On the Biden administration and the CDC: “I think the administration is in a tough pickle here because they have said we’re going to listen to the CDC without qualifying it … What they should have said is we will listen to the scientists. There are plenty of scientists and doctors working and other agencies within the White House itself. That’s what they should have said, not, we will listen to the CDC.”

  • On the Biden administration’s response to COVID: “They’re trying to fix a terrible situation and they’ve done a great job when it comes to prioritizing health equity, getting the vaccine supply, doing the initial vaccine rollout … But they’ve also really overcompensated and now they can’t walk it back. Now that President Biden said, ‘Oh, I’m going to listen to the scientists, I’m going to follow the CDC,’ he can’t now say, ‘But actually, the CDC is terrible at communication and we need our comms and policy people to help them.'”

For more of Major’s conversation with Wen, download “The Takeout” podcast on Art19, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch “The Takeout” on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of “The Takeout” episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to “The Takeout” on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).    

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