At the government’s coronavirus briefings, no matter how upbeat Andy Slavitt’s news is, he can still rely on next-up Dr. Rochelle Walensky to bring a downbeat.
The thrice-weekly virtual sessions of 2021 have taken on a more subdued and routine pace than the chaotic briefings of the Trump period, when top doctors would flock to the podium in the White House press room only to be upstaged by spurious pronouncements from Donald Trump himself.
Joe Biden, the Vice President, will not be there. The main characters stick to their specialties. Data is king.
The Biden briefings are meant to illustrate the science-based side of the crisis, with a tone based more on facts than flourish, as compared to the Trump briefings, which made for more entertaining television.
The briefings typically start with Slavitt or Jeff Zients, the White House’s top pandemic response official, providing an update on Biden’s current efforts to contain the virus — a can-do, albeit monotone, message on what the administration is doing to protect citizens and get them vaccinated.
Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is up next. She is the one who carries the numbers.
She goes over the latest figures on new infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities from the devastating disease that has swept the country for more than a year, killing at least 550,000 people in the United States. Even when the trends are positive, she acts as a one-woman Greek chorus, urging people not to relax their guard.
Walensky demonstrated this on Monday, when she deviated from her script about a recent spike in hospitalizations and deaths to admit, “right now, I’m afraid.” Walensky said she had a constant feeling of “impending doom” despite several reasons for optimism, her voice heavy with emotion.
Her remarks dominated headlines and overshadowed the president’s own announcement later in the day regarding new measures to broaden vaccination services, as she shared her concerns that the country is on the brink of a “fourth wave” of the virus if citizens aren’t more vigilant.
“If we let our guard down now, we might see a virus getting worse, not better,” Biden said, echoing her sentiments.
Even some White House aides were shocked by Walensky’s stark warning, as the doctors have been given wide latitude to address the public, in keeping with Biden’s commitment to let science lead the government’s response to the pandemic.
It’s a stark contrast to the previous administration, where a number of top government advisers were silenced or self-censored for fear of angering Trump, who sought to downplay the virus’s threat to the public even as the death toll rose.
There’s also a political goal, as the White House tries to preserve Biden’s high public approval ratings for his handling of the virus.
Zients recently said, “I believe we’re moving past the partisanship through clear, constructive contact.” “Communication, accountability, and change are the most important ways to accomplish this and ensure that the American people are aware of the pandemic’s status and our response.”
Despite the fact that Zients and Slavitt have used their appearances to support Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, Jamieson noted a distinction between White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s briefings and the health briefings: “We’re beginning to distinguish the voice of science from the voice of politics in a safe way.”
The briefings aren’t exactly must-see television, but Slavitt claims they follow a tried-and-true formula.
He said, “It’s not always what people want to hear, but it’s always specifically what people say they’re looking for, which is just the straight story.”