Transcript: CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on “Face the Nation”

The following is a transcript of an interview with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky that aired on Sunday, September 26, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”


MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to the CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. She’s in Newton, Massachusetts. Good morning to you.

CDC DIRECTOR DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Good morning, MARGARET, thanks for having me.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, can you explain what made you side with the FDA in saying people at high risk of exposure should be eligible to get this third dose when your own advisory committee did not come to the consensus and exactly who is high risk?

DR. WALENSKY: Great, so first, let me start by saying that we still have 70 million Americans who are unvaccinated in this country, and these are people who are 10 times the risk of being hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die. So, we have hard work in making sure we get those people vaccinated. But as I’m here to talk about boosters, let’s- let’s get to protecting the people to optimize people who have already been vaccinated. So, there is a scientific process. We have an FDA advisory board meeting. They then provide the regulatory authorization and then it comes to a CDC advisory meeting. And then I provide those recommendations. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. 

DR. WALENSKY: And there has been remarkable consensus in a lot of those discussions, people over the age of 65 people at high-risk conditions and where there was some real scientific discussion, and a scientific close call was for those people who are at high risk of living by virtue of where they live or where they work. And because of that close call and because of all the evidence we reviewed both of the FDA and at the CDC, I felt it was appropriate for those people to also be eligible for boosters. So, who are those people? Those are people who live and work in high-risk settings, that includes people in homeless shelters, people in group homes, people in prisons, but also importantly are people who work for- work with vulnerable communities. So, our health care workers, our teachers are grocery workers, our public transportation employees.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, teachers. Does that mean other people living with unvaccinated children should also be considered high risk? Does that make parents living with unvaccinated kids’ high risk?

DR. WALENSKY: The- the recommendations were not intended for that population,–

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK.

DR. WALENSKY: –it’s really for people who are working all the time with many different people who might be unvaccinated, might be at- and high risk and really the vulnerable community, the vulnerable occupations like our health care workers, our teachers, our public transportation.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, the category just seems very broad. So that’s why I want to give some real-world examples here. Should a healthy 21-year-old male who waits tables at a restaurant, for example, go out and get a vaccine, a third dose?

DR. WALENSKY: You know, this is really where we made- we made it possible for people to be eligible, but they really have to identify their own individual risk and they own their own individual benefit. And I recognize that this is confusing, and we have a lot of resources available with your pharmacist, with your physicians, with your public health departments and with the CDC. So really, I would try and get a sense from that individual. What kind of community? How much? How much- much are people wearing masks? Are there masks in the restaurant? Is- are people generally vaccinated in that community to make a personal decision about whether that person wants to be vaccinated?

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, a 40- a 40-year-old parent living with unvaccinated kids, though you said not necessarily necessary for them to get a booster.

DR. WALENSKY: No, not yet. And we will have more data forthcoming, and of course, we will be looking at those data on an ongoing basis in real time and updating those guidances. But if that 40-year-old parent does not meet eligibility for some other reason that I would say it’s not time for that person to get vaccinated.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But so you can understand that– 

DR. WALENSKY: Boosted. I’m sorry, boosted.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Boosted. Yes, I understood what you meant there, but- but you can understand when the president stands up there and says, “we’re probably going to open this up anyway.” And you’re saying, wait and see. There’s some confusion. Are- are you going to recommend boosters for the general population?

DR. WALENSKY: You know, I recognize that confusion right now. Our recommendation is for these limited people in the population, over sixty five high risk workers, high risk community occupations, as well as high risk by comorbidities. We are evaluating this science in real time. We are meeting every several weeks now to evaluate the science. The science may very well show that the rest of the population needs to be boosted and we will provide those guidances as soon as we have the science to inform them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, for those who didn’t come to the consensus at the CDC that the view that you did, what are the risks that they’re looking at? What is the risk for that 20-year-old going out and getting a third booster, a third dose?

DR. WALENSKY: Yeah. So that’s a great question. So, you know, as we’ve looked at the risks, benefits and safety profiles of people who have gotten third doses, we have a lot of experience from other countries. Israel has vaccinated millions of people now with third doses, and we’ve actually vaccinated here up to two and a half million people now with third doses. So, we just don’t have as long of a duration of safety for those third doses. But what I can tell you is so far in the 20,000 people we’ve looked at; the safety signals are exactly the same as what we’ve seen for the second dose. So- and we’ve vaccinated over 160 million people with MRNA vaccines in this country. We have an extraordinary amount of safety data. So, you know, some in- some scientists may say, Wait, we want to wait and see what more safety data come in, what- whether there is a true benefit to be seen in- in- in trials and effectiveness. But there’s extraordinary data to demonstrate the safety of these vaccines and in fact, that they work. So, if you’re in a high-risk position, I would absolutely recommend you get the boost.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when- when you are talking about the formulation of the vaccine, you’re saying the second and the third dose are the same thing. Does that change as the virus continues to mutate? Should we all be prepared that we all will need to go get boosters every single year?

DR. WALENSKY: I want to emphasize that our goal right now is to stay ahead of the virus. We want to boost now so we don’t end up in a vulnerable place, but your question is an important one and it’s one we don’t necessarily have the answer for yet. We are working to stay ahead of the virus. We will see if we can get the amount of transmission down in this country and truly around the world, which we are also working to do than we are anticipating and hoping that we will not have more mutations that will require more boosting in the future.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I appreciate at the outset you laid out the bureaucratic process that- that happens within the government to say yes or no on these vaccines. But we’re in the middle of a national health crisis where trust has been diminished or clarity and communication is so important. Was this the right way to actually get this done? I mean, almost every day we had a different message on whether to take the booster or not.

DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, I want to actually articulate this. This- this is not the bureaucratic process; this is the scientific process. You have scientific experts, academicians who are talking about the FDA advisory committee. The FDA puts its authorization. You have academicians, people working their entire career in immunology and vaccinology, informing the CDC. I think that this is an important scientific process and an important scientific dialogue. It has been scrutinized. It’s been watched in ways that it has never been before, but this has been the process that has held us in good stead. And that- I think is important for people who might- and- and it’s very transparent. And I think it’s important for people to understand and be able to watch the science, so they have confidence in the process.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You said back in March you had a feeling of “impending doom.” You got- took a lot of flak for saying that in those terms, but–

DR. WALENSKY: Indeed. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: –but we were on the cusp of the delta surge. We are now back at 2,000 deaths a day. How do you feel now?

DR. WALENSKY: Look, you look at states around this country and you see places that are using crisis standards of care. That is not- and that means that we are talking about who is going to get a ventilator, who is going to get an ICU bed. Those are not easy discussions to have, and that is not a place we want our health care system to ever be. And we are working–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that what you meant when you said impending doom, what you’re seeing now? Crisis levels of care?

DR. WALENSKY: In some states, yes. They are running out of beds. And when you see that, you worry that people may not be able to come in and get the proper care if they have a motor vehicle accident or if they’re having a heart attack. And that is why we are working so hard in areas that have high levels of disease where they can’t. Their health care systems are in dire straits. Working to get- get assistance to them, working to get those communities vaccinated. Because, as I noted, people who are not vaccinated are 10 times more likely to be in the hospital. Our hospitals are filled with unvaccinated people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Infections among children 5 to 11 are at the highest they’ve ever seen on a weekly basis, according to your agency’s data. Our schools’ vectors of transmission? Is this where kids are getting sick?

DR. WALENSKY: Our science has actually demonstrated that the disease generally comes in from the community, and that when schools are practicing the proper mitigation and prevention strategies, it’s not where the transmission is actually happening. So just this week we had two studies published. Over 96% six of schools just in this school year have been able to remain open. And yet, we also published a study out of Arizona that demonstrated that places that had no masks in place were three and a half times more likely to have outbreaks than places that did have masks in place. So we know how to keep them safe. And when we don’t use the proper mitigation strategies, they’re more likely to have outbreaks and have to close

MARGARET BRENNAN: Just very quickly before I let you go: Should kids go trick or treating on Halloween? Is it safe?

DR. WALENSKY: Oh, gosh, I certainly hope so. If you’re able to be outdoors, absolutely. Limit crowds. I wouldn’t necessarily go to a crowded- crowded Halloween party, but I think that we should be able to let our kids go trick or treating in small groups. And- and I hope that we can do that this year before I go: If you’re not vaccinated, please get vaccinated. If you’re eligible for a boost, go get your boost.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Dr. Walensky, thank you for your time this morning.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you so much.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ll be back in a minute. Stay with us.