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Sen. Collins faces off with CDC director, says agency used to be the 'gold standard' — but not any more after its terrible COVID messaging

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky (left) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) (Image source: C-SPAN video screenshot composite)

Americans have for months been exacerbated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's mixed messaging during the coronavirus pandemic. From messages on mask-wearing to outdoor transmission to how fully vaccinated people should conduct themselves, the agency has repeatedly undermined itself in the eyes of many Americans and tarnished its own reputation — likely permanently for vast swaths of the population.

One of those people disillusioned with the CDC's "expertise" is Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — and she made her disappointment and distrust of the agency clear in remarks to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky during a Senate Health Committee hearing Tuesday.

What happened?

The CDC finally — after ongoing pressure from all sides — issued new face mask guidance late last month. Though the new guidelines were celebrated for finally offering some relief to fully vaccinated people, many critics — on the right and the left — criticized the new rules for not loosening restrictions even further. Beyond that, the members of the Biden administration have continued to undermine the new CDC guidelines — from the Health and Human Services secretary to Biden's COVID czar to President Joe Biden himself.

Late last week, the CDC finally acknowledged publicly that COVID-19 is airborne — a fact that other health experts have known for several months.

The CDC has been inconsistent in its support for reopening schools and recently suffered its own scandal when it was revealed that the American Federation of Teachers appeared to play a significant role in CDC guidelines for reopening.

There has also been debate over the agency's restrictions for outdoor summer camps that say outdoor campers should be masked.

And on Tuesday, the New York Times exposed a move by the CDC to exaggerate the risk of outdoor COVID spread in order to protect people. The Times revealed that Director Walensky's claim that "less than 10 percent" of transmissions occur outdoors was misleading at best. In fact, the Times said, the rate of outdoor transmission is less than 1% — and may be below 0.1%.

These recent CDC messaging snafus led Collins to issue a stark rebuke to Walensky for her agency's missteps.

"I used to have the utmost respect for the guidance from the CDC," Collins said. "I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don't anymore."

The senator cited the CDC's "conflicting" and "confusing" guidance that has "undermined public confidence" and "contradicts the scientific guidance of many experts" on school openings, outdoor transmission risks, and summer camps.

"So, here we have unnecessary barriers to reopening schools, exaggerating the risks of outdoor transmission, and unworkable restrictions on summer camps. Why does this matter?" Collins asked. "It matters because it undermines public confidence in your recommendations, in the recommendations that do make sense, in the recommendations that Americans should be following."

Walensky stood behind her agency's widely criticized actions and rules, saying the "CDC will continue to follow the science" — without explaining which science that would be.

The director briefly addressed the report that the AFT played an outsized role in reopening guidance for schools, claiming that the guidelines that were updated with the union's requested language was actually based on CDC science and was initially left out based on an accidental oversight.

She attempted to explain away the Tuesday Times report that exposed the CDC's exaggerations on outdoor transmission, saying that the agency's messaging was based on a "published study" — a claim the Times report clearly debunked.

And she lamented the camp restrictions, saying she won't let her own 16-year-old go to camp, but she failed to note that kids are not the people at risk with COVID, and most of the adults who would be considered vulnerable have received vaccines.

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