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Don’t Let the CDC Director Off the Hook

Even in context, Rochelle Walensky's interview with 'Good Morning America' is still explicitly ableist.

The Good Morning America interview with Dr. Rochelle Walensky
Screenshot via Good Morning America

In the days after CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky went on Good Morning America to talk about the CDC’s quarantine guidance, and seemed to disregard the deaths of vaccinated disabled people during her interview, The Washington Post, CNN, and other outlets published a slew of fact checks showing that she was quoted out of context.

The added context of Walensky’s actual comments , however, aren’t an air-tight defense for the critiques disabled activists have made about Walensky. Instead, the context corroborates their critiques and proves how pervasive these ableist attitudes are.

On Friday, the original interview between ABC News chief White House correspondent Cecilia Vega and Walensky ran during Good Morning America. Vega asked Walensky about the CDC quarantine and isolation guidance and criticism from the American Medical Association. But toward the end of the interview Vega asked about a federal study on the efficacy of COVID-19, that showed that, of 1.2 million people who were fully vaccinated, 0.015% of them had a severe reaction to COVID. Vega asked, “Given that, is it time to start rethinking how we’re living with this virus, that it’s potentially here to stay?”

This is the response from Walensky that ABC originally aired, which has reasonably incensed disability activists and advocates in the days following the interview, from the CNN article fact-checking the claims of right-wing commentator Clay Travis (for more than enough context on this guy, see here):

“The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, 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. This means not only just to get your primary series but to get your booster series. And yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”

The clip was fuel for people like Travis, who saw the CDC director seem to say that of all COVID-related deaths, 75% of people had four comorbidities, and that the CDC was “suddenly” releasing this stunning data because “Biden can’t shut down covid.” Of course, we knew early on in the pandemic that people with other health conditions and disparities were more likely to have a severe case of COVID than someone without other health conditions. This wasn’t exactly a secret, and the CDC’s public data is still just as alarming: of the people whose death certificates mention COVID, 95% of them had on average 4 additional conditions contributing to death or causes of death listed, though among them are also conditions caused by COVID itself.

But to the people Walensky seemed to be talking about—people with comorbidities—her answer was outrageous for reasons unrelated to conspiracy. They saw the director of the CDC answering questions about “rethinking how we’re living with this virus” by framing the deaths of vaccinated people with comorbidities (read: were older than 65, were immunosuppressed, or otherwise chronically disabled) as “encouraging news,” and brushing them off as “people who were unwell to begin with.”

On Monday, ABC News published the full interview, including Walensky’s full response to that question, which the network said it cut “for time” reasons. Here’s her full response:

“You know, really important study, if I may just summarize it. A study of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated between December and October. And demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about 0.015% of the people who were — received their primary series — and death in 0.003% of those people. The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, 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. This means not only just to get your primary series but to get your booster series. And yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”

The context of Walensky’s citation does reframe her response in a different light. She isn’t explicitly saying that we should be encouraged that a majority of people who’ve died from COVID are disabled. And it is important that the efficacy of these vaccines be communicated, to help better encourage people who have yet to get vaccinated against COVID-19. That it itself shouldn’t be discouraged.

But there are still problems with Walensky’s framing of the people who’ve been vaccinated who have died.

Disabled people are still framed as collateral damage in the fight to keep everyone else alive — that this is “encouraging news” for how we might rethink our approach to the virus, and that somehow the deaths of this group of people actually grounds for hope. It feels like a reiteration of the early discourse around COVID-19 from two years ago, and how serious (or unserious) we as a society should treat it, with that decision based upon the identities of who were most likely to live from it. Giving Walensky a kinder reading, she’s simply trying to talk about how effective the vaccine is, but her explanation that the vaccinated people who’ve died were mostly “people who were unwell to begin with” cannot be overlooked.

If it’s not enough that this is the kind of response the CDC director has to how we should rethink our approach to the pandemic, it is just as alarming, and perhaps even more damning, that a major news network like ABC thought it fine and fair to cut Walensky’s comments.

It is, of course, journalistic malpractice at best to have taken her words out of context so drastically. But at worst, ABC’s hack job is an honest look at what its producers think is most worthy of communicating to its viewers. By deciding that it was just enough to communicate such a glib and dehumanizing death sentence for disabled people — to not even contextualize it to show they are talking about tens of people in a study and not hundreds of thousands in this evidence of “encouraging news” — ABC signaled just how little it cares about disabled people in its coverage of a virus that disproportionately kills them.

This is the historical truth of the foundation of the United States — that the lives of people with disabilities, frequently among them Black people, people of color, and women, have been treated as inferior and negligible, and unworthy of existing. And though these attitudes have persisted for much of the pandemic, the Good Morning America interview with Walensky is but another example of just how pervasive ableism has remained during this public health crisis, from the people entrusted to lead the fight against COVID, to the people entrusted with communicating information to the masses.