U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is being criticized from all sides over comments she made last week in an interview.
Appearing on ABC News to discuss Omicron variant death statistics, Walensky was asked about a new CDC study that found COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death. The study looked at more than 1 million people who completed primary vaccination (two shots, no booster, or one Johnson & Johnson shot) between December 2020 and October 2021. Researchers found that "severe COVID-19-associated outcomes" occurred only in only 0.015% of vaccinated people. Deaths were rare, happening in only 0.0033% of cases.
"Severe COVID-19 outcomes were defined as hospitalization with a diagnosis of acute respiratory failure, need for noninvasive ventilation (NIV), admission to an intensive care unit (ICU) including all persons requiring invasive mechanical ventilation, or death (including discharge to hospice)," the study said. "Among 1,228,664 persons who completed primary vaccination during December 2020–October 2021, a total of 2,246 (18.0 per 10,000 vaccinated persons) developed COVID-19 and 189 (1.5 per 10,000) had a severe outcome, including 36 who died (0.3 deaths per 10,000)."
The study explained that people most at risk from developing a severe outcome were older than 65, are immunosuppressed, or have at least one of six other underlying health conditions.
Digging into these results on Friday, Walensky told "Good Morning America" that the vast majority of people who died of COVID-19 after primary vaccination had at least four underlying conditions that increased their risk of serious illness. Those conditions include diabetes, and chronic kidney, cardiac, pulmonary, neurologic, and liver diseases.
"The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really these were people who were unwell to begin with, and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron," Walensky said, referring to deaths of vaccinated people examined in the study, not total deaths from COVID-19.
CDC director responds to criticisms on COVID-19 guidance l GMA youtu.be
Some people on social media attacked the CDC director for allegedly speaking disrespectfully toward disabled or chronically ill people. Newsweek reported that Twitter users posted #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy with comments criticizing Walensky for saying she was encouraged that COVID-19 deaths among the vaccinated appear limited to people with preexisting health conditions or disabilities.
"Contrary to popular belief, CDC Director, disabled people aren't just data points ... How callous to say you're encouraged by the prospect of their deaths," Imani Barbarin, a disability rights activist, wrote.
Matthew Cortland, a lawyer who suffers from a chronic illness, tweeted: "It is 'encouraging' to [Walensky] that chronically ill and disabled Americans are dying ... our deaths clearly don't count."
Many others shared similar comments, some of them nasty. The social media backlash prompted Walensky to respond on Sunday with a tweet emphasizing the CDC's dedication to protecting people with comorbidities from COVID-19.
"We must protect people with comorbidities from severe COVID-19. I went into medicine—HIV specifically—and public health to protect our most at-risk," she wrote. "CDC is taking steps to protect those at highest risk, including those with chronic health conditions, disabilities and older adults."
But the CDC director faced more backlash for entirely different reasons. Several individuals called attention to Walensky's comment that over 75% of COVID deaths were people with "at least four comorbidities." These critics took her comments out of context, leaving out the vaccination effectiveness study and claiming she was saying that 75% of all coronavirus-related deaths were from people with comorbidities.
"How many had 2/3 things that would likely kill them or were in late stage terminal cancer, or were hit by a bus?" Donald Trump Jr. asked. "Whats the # of truly healthy?"
"This means they shut down the country, stole two years of education from children, sent thousands of businesses under, and caused mass hysteria when only 209,000 deaths weren't people already deathly sick," Greg Price, a senior digital strategist for X Strategies LLC, a political consulting and digital marketing firm, said.
These critics and others thought Walenksy's comments confirmed a long-held suspicion by many people skeptical of COVID-19 lockdowns and government mandates that reported COVID deaths were inflated by counting deaths with COVID alongside deaths from COVID.
Data from New York, for instance, shows that more than 40% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state are patients that were admitted to the hospitals for reasons other than coronavirus infection or were complications from the virus. Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) ordered hospitals to start differentiating why COVID-19 patients were initially admitted in their daily COVID reports.
Walensky was asked directly about this issue on "Fox News Sunday," hosted by Bret Baier.
"Do you know how many of the 836,000 deaths in the U.S. linked to COVID are from COVID or how many are with COVID, but they had other comorbidities? Do you have that breakdown?" asked Baier.
"Yes of course with Omicron we're following that very carefully," Walensky responded. "Our death registry of course takes a few weeks ... to collect. And of course Omicron has just been with us for a few weeks. But those data will be forthcoming."
Her non-answer only frustrated her critics, who demanded to know when that data would be released so that science, not fear of death from COVID-19, would inform policy makers with the power to close schools, businesses, and mandate masks or vaccination during a pandemic.