Cohen tells Americans to mask up as congressional committee looks for answers

CDC head Dr. Mandy Cohen. (Pool photo from a May 2020 COVID-19 press briefing. Pool photo)

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  • Lawmakers tried to get answers from Cohen on the effectiveness of masks and whether she would shut down schools.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Mandy Cohen is urging Americans to put masks back on for the holidays. In a Fireside Chat with the American Medical Association on Tuesday, Cohen said flu season started just before Thanksgiving and rapidly accelerated, particularly in the southern United States.

“We know this time of year we are going to see more respiratory illness, but now we add COVID on top of that,” said Cohen, formally North Carolina’s Health and Human Services director. “COVID is still causing the most number of cases, the most number of hospitalizations, and unfortunately the most number of deaths week over week. So while we all wish we could leave COVID in the rearview mirror, it is here with us, so we need to make sure we are continuing to take it very seriously.”

letter requests answers by december 13

The messaging comes a day before a deadline set by a congressional committee in a letter to Cohen with key questions about how her agency is working to regain the public’s trust. The House Energy and Commerce Committee chairs have set a December 13 deadline for answers to questions about the CDC communications with Chinese government regarding a new viral outbreak there and its transparency, along with how the CDC is sharing information with other federal agencies.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Protection’s (CDC) failure to communicate accurate information in real-time during the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined public trust in the agency. If the CDC is to regain credibility with the American people, it must be transparent and forthcoming with the information it has on public health threats facing our nation,” wrote subcommittee chairs Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Brett Guthrie (R-KY), and Morgan Griffith (R-VA).

“It is widely known that China thwarted international efforts, including efforts by the CDC, to respond to the burgeoning COVID-19 crisis as it began to unfold in China,” they continued. “Even the World Health Organization (WHO), which has long been criticized for being overly accommodating to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has called China’s decision to withhold information from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic ‘simply inexcusable.’”

Rodgers has introduced a bill in Congress that would bar the CDC from making any mandatory public policy, including mask mandates, and would require the agency to revamp how they issue pubic health guidance. A budget bill that is moving through Congress cuts funding for the agency’s data infrastructure program.

cohen testifies before congress

Cohen testified before the committee last month that the China-based CDC office is in touch with Chinese officials and feel confident that the current outbreak there is not a new virus.

“Chinese officials have shared with us that there is no novel pathogen,” she told the committee. “We were able to corroborate that across other source including our European Union partners and others to make sure we were getting a complete picture.”

She also spoke on efforts to build back the image and public confidence in the agency, which tumbled during the COVID pandemic. The House Energy and Commerce Committee titled the hearing Unmasking Challenges CDC Faces in Rebuilding Public Trust Amid Respiratory Illness Season. In that hearing, Cohen was directly asked about masking.

“I wanted a clear answer to the question, do cloth masks work? You gave me an answer as a lawyer that I had a hard time understanding, and I think its a fair question,” said Rep. Scott Peters, D-CA. “I wish you had just said ‘don’t use cloth masks, use surgical masks.’ Don’t we have enough information to answer the question like that?”

“So, I want to make sure that we are saying that cloth masks are a barrier, so they do work, but do surgical masks work better? Absolutely,” Cohen answered. “Would I wear a cloth mask? No, I wouldn’t. I would wear a surgical mask.”

Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Alabama, attempted to get Cohen to answer whether she would close schools as head of CDC, and whether she acknowledged that the COVID closures harmed students. She did not answer directly.

“I can’t answer a hypothetical, but I do think we’ve learned a lot about how to approach … ” she started to say.

“Did it harm out students by shutting down the schools?” Palmer asked.

“Look, we knew in person instruction was incredibly beneficial … ” she answered.

“You’d be great in a sales department,” he responded.

“There are a lot of people who continue to think this was more about power than medicine and if you’re going continue to try to do a sales job, you’re going to try to explain positions, its going to be difficult to get us on board with the CDC because people don’t trust you anymore,” said Palmer. “There has been enormous damage done to science and medicine because of the policies of the CDC and the National Institutes of Health and others.”

Palmer and other members sought Cohen’s admission that guidance policies needed to change at the CDC.

“If the CDC wants its credibility back, you got to have mea culpa moments,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, told Cohen during the hearing. “You’re in the perfect position; you have nothing to do with their decisions at the time, so there’s no reason to defend it.”

nc data challenges

Cohen left North Carolina for the CDC in July of 2023, after leading the state’s policy around the COVID virus in 2020 through 2022. During that time, NCDHHS struggled with managing data and took criticism for transparency during the pandemic and how state government-imposed shutdowns were explained with hard data about the virus.

“Here in North Carolina, her Department of Health and Human Services produced bad data, they changed data, they constantly revised data, they were very, very late in reporting all deaths data,” said Jon Sanders, of the Center for Food Power and Life at the announcement that she would head the federal health agency for the Biden Administration. “At the end of COVID we were five months behind the rest of the nation, all other states, in reporting deaths data to the CDC.”

Now leading the Biden administration’s CDC, Cohen is using familiar language focused on broader respiratory illnesses. In a video posted to the agencies social media account, Cohen says there are increases in flu, RSV, and COVID in recent weeks, although she also said they are not seeing evidence of new viruses.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, CDC Director, speaks during a Fireside Chat on Tuesday December 12, 2023. Source: American Medical Association

“Get your updated flu and COVID vaccines, and your RSV vaccine if you are over 60, it’s not too late to get vaccinated if you haven’t already,” she said. “Use additional layers of protection, like avoiding people who are sick, washing your hands, improving ventilation, and wearing a mask.”

North Carolina’s COVID tracking dashboard, which was active during the pandemic shutdowns, stopped being updated in May of 2023. It was replaced by the “North Carolina Respiratory Virus Dashboard.” The CDC estimates that only 16% of Americans have gotten the latest COVID vaccine. The agency is currently tacking the COVID variant JN.1, which they say comprises an estimated 15–29% of the cases in the United States as of December 8, 2023. In North Carolina, 486 people statewide were hospitalized with COVID as of last week, while 192 people were hospitalized with influenza.