CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky made troubling comments during her Friday morning appearance on Good Morning America regarding the deaths of disabled people from COVID-19, seemingly implying that the deaths of people with pre-existing conditions, often those with disabilities, were expected and acceptable deaths. Walensky’s appearance on the popular morning show was in part an effort to course-correct from a series of recent communications failures on the part of the CDC, but her appearance seemed only to add fuel to the fire of controversy surrounding the agency and its approach to the omicron variant.
The precise exchange on Friday’s GMA episode was as follows:
Question: “I want to ask you about those encouraging headlines that we’re talking about this morning. This new study shows just how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness. Is it time to start rethinking how we’re living with this virus?”
Walensky: “The overwhelming number of deaths—over 75 percent—occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so really these are people who were unwell to begin with. And, yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron…We’re really encouraged by these results.”
Outrage from advocates
The words “comorbidity” and “pre-existing conditions” can generally be interpreted as referring to people with disabilities or chronic illnesses and elderly people. Unsurprisingly then, such comments labeling the deaths of disabled and elderly people as “encouraging news” have sparked much ire on social media. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) posted an open letter to the director via Twitter over the weekend in which DREDF Director Susan Henderson described Walensky’s words as “abhorrent,” asserting that the director’s words indicate that the CDC finds the death of disabled people “acceptable.” Henderson writes:
“Messages from the head of the CDC must convey that all lives are valuable, and the loss of any life from COVID-19, whether it is the life of a person with a disability, an older adult, or a 32-year-old with no known disabilities, is a tragedy.”
Henderson then encouraged Walensky to consider the consequences of her words and the biases that can be inherent in certain language, ending the letter by imploring Walensky, the CDC, and society at large to make broad changes in how they think and speak about the lives and deaths of disabled people.
The DREDF were not the only ones expressing disgust at Walensky’s words via social media. Some critics on Twitter suggested that Walensky’s attitude toward the deaths of people with disabilities was borderline pro-eugenics while one TikToker summed up Walensky’s statements by saying: “Sometimes people really just say the quiet part out loud.” Back on Twitter, some users began using the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy to share their stories and denounce Walensky’s words.
Walensky herself headed to Twitter in some attempt to assuage the fallout from her careless comments. While the director never specifically apologized or explicitly addressed the appearance on GMA, she did say:
“We must protect people with comorbidities from severe #COVID19. I went into medicine—HIV specifically—and public health to protect our most at-risk. CDC is taking steps to protect those at highest risk, incl. those w/ chronic health conditions, disabilities & older adults.”
Somehow, Walensky’s statement did little to calm the stormy seas of the internet and instead likely rocked the boat even further. But a spokesperson for Walensky did come slightly closer to taking accountability for the comments in a statement to Newsweek: "Dr. Walensky did not intend comments in a recent television appearance to be hurtful toward those with disabilities. She is deeply concerned and cares about the health and well-being of people with disabilities and those with medical conditions who have been impacted by COVID-19. The CDC director continues her commitment to protect all Americans in this next stage of the pandemic."
Walensky’s troubling GMA statements come on the heels of weeks to months of mixed messaging regarding protocols for addressing the spread of the omicron variant. Shifting guidance that often backtracks has made it impossible to establish any sort of certainty on how to approach the variant, with much of the country left bewildered about things like how long to quarantine and proper testing protocols that would ensure people return to work safely after exposure and illness.
Moving forward, may the CDC’s efforts at protecting all of us—including the most vulnerable in our society—from COVID, omicron, and all subsequent variants be more effective than their recent messaging and communication strategies.