Walensky says she will improve CDC messaging amid criticism

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky in a new interview with The Wall Street Journal committed to communicating agency coronavirus pandemic policy more clearly in the future, but defended its recent isolation guidance changes.

Walensky, who is now one year into her tenure as CDC director, said she should have made it more clear to the public that agency guidelines and recommendations can change quickly depending on the nature of the virus.

"I think what I have not conveyed is the uncertainty in a lot of these situations," Walensky said in the interview, which was published Monday.

While she vowed to improve communication, Walensky also defended the update to the agency's isolation and quarantine guidance, which shortened the recommended time people should isolate if infected with COVID-19 or quarantine if exposed.

At the end of December, the CDC announced that infected Americans would need to isolate for only five days, not 10, if they were no longer experiencing symptoms or if their symptoms were improving, and that a negative test result would not be required to end the isolation period.

Confusion and criticism ensued, as public experts said the agency erred by not specifying the need for a negative test before leaving isolation. Walensky and the administration spent the next week fielding criticism, and top officials hinted that a change was coming.

The agency then added language to say a person could take a test if they want one and it was available, but insisted one was not necessary. Walensky has explained that rapid tests are not intended to be used to test out of isolation.

She has cited rapidly evolving science for the need to make such a change. She testified during a Senate hearing last Tuesday that the changes represent "swift science-based action to address the very real possibility of staffing shortages."

But Walensky admitted much of the research justifying shortening the isolation period came before the omicron variant took over as the dominant strain.

"We felt the need to take action before we had omicron-specific data," she told The Wall Street Journal.

Walensky also said she intends to address gaps in national collection of public health data, and said she has the Biden administration's support to modernize data collection efforts.

Earlier this month, Walensky held her first solo press briefing since taking the helm. Almost all her other briefings have come as part of the White House's COVID-19 task force press conferences, where she appears with other administration officials rather than with agency scientists.

Walensky told the Journal that she plans to hold more solo media briefings in the coming months.