The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was long revered for its methodical and meticulous scientific approach. Agencies in other nations modeled themselves after the world’s most highly regarded public health authority, even adopting the name.
At the outset of the pandemic, the C.D.C. moved at its accustomed pace. But this time, with a novel virus moving so quickly, the country paid a price for the deliberative approach: Testing and surveillance lagged as the agency tried to implement dated approaches with creaky infrastructure. It was even late to recommend masking, in part because federal scientists took too long to recognize that the virus was airborne.
Now the coronavirus, and the Omicron variant in particular, is pushing the C.D.C. into uncharted territory. Because decisions must be made at a breakneck pace, the C.D.C. has issued a series of recommendations based on what once would have been considered insufficient evidence.
The agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, has sometimes skipped much of the traditional scientific review process, most recently in shortening the isolation period for infected Americans.
After the Trump administration’s pattern of interference, President Biden came to office promising to restore the C.D.C.’s reputation for independence and rigorous science. The challenge now for Dr. Walensky is figuring out how to convey this message to the public: The science is incomplete, and this is our best advice for now.
For a bureaucracy staffed primarily by medical professionals, the change in pace has not been easy.
In recent interviews, some officials at the C.D.C. privately described the decisions as demoralizing, and worried about Dr. Walensky’s increasing reliance on a small group of advisers and what they saw as the White House’s heavy political influence on her actions.
Yet others outside the agency commended Dr. Walensky for short-circuiting a laborious process and taking a pragmatic approach to managing a national emergency, saying she was right to move ahead even when the data was unclear and agency researchers remained unsure.