Leaked Audio Reveals CDC Director Saying She Won’t Halt School Mask Guidance
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, answers questions at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky privately told lawmakers recently that the agency has no plans to relax school mask guidance.

Walensky’s private statements were revealed in audio of a closed-door House Energy and Commerce Committee meeting leaked to Reason. The briefing took place virtually on Tuesday and included testimony from Walensky, White House COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci, and Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dawn O’Connell.

“The CDC provides guidance,” Walensky told lawmakers in the recording. “Our guidance currently is that masking should happen in all schools right now.”

The audio also reveals that Walensky “faced criticism—from members in both parties—that the CDC’s guidance is confusing and out of step with human behavior at this stage of the pandemic,” Reason’s Robby Soave reported.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), grilled Walensky about the science behind school masking, and brought up how the Arizona study regularly cited by the CDC as supporting continued masks for children was thoroughly critiqued in an article for The Atlantic.

“What we see in the U.S. is an outlier as it relates to the mask mandate for our children to go to school,” McMorris Rodgers told Walensky in the audio, according to Reason. “[The World Health Organization and UNICEF] have both recommended against masking for kids under the age of five because it’s going to do more harm than good. For children ages 6 to 11, they think that we should be considering other factors like learning and social development. My question today, my one question, is Dr. Walensky, will you commit to update your guidance by Friday to allow children in person without the burden of masks?”

Walensky refused to make the commitment, though she did acknowledge the “limitations” of the Arizona study and other studied the CDC has used to continue pushing masks in schools.

“They all have limitations, and that’s important to recognize because we are not randomizing schools,” she said. “We have to control for whether there are windows, ventilation, and other activities happening outside of these schools. So all of these studies have limitations. But they are for the most part uniformly pointing to that when there’s a lot of disease out there, the masks are preventing that disease and preventing that transmission and because of that we are able to keep our schools open.”

Another Republican, Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama, asked Walensky how the CDC could justify continued mask requirements in schools. Walensky responded by defending the current mask guidance and added that local governments could disregard it.

“I will also say that guidance is just guidance, and all of these decisions, we’ve continued to say, have to be made at the local level,” she said, according to Reason. “As cases come down dramatically, we have deferred our guidance to the local jurisdictions.”

Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California also questioned why the CDC wasn’t clearer about the level of caution still needed.

“You hear the word confusion over and over again,” said Eshoo. “But here’s another one for you: masking. You know where I live in the Bay Area, the peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley? Schools, cities, towns, counties: you’re saying one thing, and they’re doing something else. And this is a highly educated area, too. I trust our public health officials here. So my first question and my second point to you, Dr. Walensky, why do we have to be on two different tracks? Isn’t there some kind of public health consensus about this?”

Walensky then started reciting national case and death numbers, but Eshoo cut her off, asking the CDC director to consider various localities when answering.

“Absolutely,” said Walensky. “We know that all of these decisions have to be made at the jurisdictional level. So not only do we report the national data, but we have to report them at the jurisdictional level, because we know that we ask the jurisdictions to look at their local context, to look at their local cases, to look at how their hospitals are doing, to look at their local death rates. And that is exactly what I think is happening across the country in a phased way. Many different policies are rolling out. Some are saying they’re removing masks. Now some are saying they’re removing masks at the end of the month. Some say we’re removing masks at the end of the month, but not yet for schools. And so this is really happening at the jurisdictional level. And what we’re recommending is that given right now, where we are for cases, that the masks should still stay on.”

Eshoo then criticized Walensky for suggesting people are checking the CDC website to determine policy based on local COVID-19 numbers.

“I think that’s confusing, and I do think that it puts a dent in CDC credibility,” said Eshoo. “Credibility is everything in this. Who are you going to pay attention to? So, I mean, it goes to that and I think it’s troubling. They’re making it sound as if, you know, all of these local entities, public health directors, whatever, are not paying attention to the CDC. That’s the way it looks to me. All right? That’s the way it looks. That’s the way it sounds. So I don’t know. What should I tell my constituents? Oh, look at their website. I don’t think that’s a good answer, honestly.”

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