CDC director tells Senate she is 'cautiously optimistic' about state of fight against COVID-19

Doctors wearing face masks
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., faced questions about the agency's new guidance on masks for fully vaccinated people, which earned a sharp pushback from the union National Nurses United. (Getty/DjelicS)

A major downward trend in cases and hospitalizations has the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “cautiously optimistic” about the fight against the virus.

But new variants could reverse some of the gains, especially as the virus continues to surge in other parts of the world, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., told a Senate panel Wednesday.

“I think we would be remiss to say we are out of the woods,” she told a Senate appropriations subcommittee during a hearing on the agency’s budget. “This pandemic has sent us too many curve balls and too early to declare victory.”

Walensky said that right now it appears the COVID-19 vaccines approved by the U.S. work against variants of the virus. However, surges of the virus in other parts of the world “gives opportunity for more variants to emerge,” she added.

The Biden administration has stepped up the number of vaccine doses it is distributing to other countries in recent weeks as the virus has surged in countries such as India.

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CDC also made a major update to its masking guidance last week by announcing that fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear masks indoors or outside.

The guidance was based on new data that showed even if someone gets infected after they have the vaccine, they can’t give it to anyone else.

“That data was enough for us to move forward,” Walensky said.

But the guidance drew a swift rebuke from the union National Nurses United (NNU), which said in a statement last week that the virus is still spreading in the country.

“Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century,” said Bonnie Castillo, the union’s executive director, in a statement May 14.

Walensky told the Senate that it is working on more detailed guidance for workplaces such as meatpacking plants and other crowded facilities.

The union has clamored for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for employers to protect front-line healthcare workers since the start of the pandemic. NNU said CDC’s new mask guidance underscores the need for that standard.

“If OSHA does not issue a COVID ETS immediately, we will undoubtedly see more unnecessary, preventable infections and deaths, as well as long Covid cases among nurses and other frontline workers,” said NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez in a statement May 14.

Walensky said it is up to states and localities whether to lift mask mandates, which some states decided to do after the new guidance was published.