CDC Director Walensky Tearfully Warns Of ‘Impending Doom’

It’s never a great sign when the CDC Director nearly starts crying while discussing a deadly virus that’s already killed nearly 2.8 million people globally, and more than a half-million in the US alone.

But that’s what happened on Monday when, during what I assume were supposed to be scripted remarks, Rochelle Walensky veered off course into an emotional plea.

“I’m gonna pause here. I’m gonna lose the script,” Walensky said, before describing “a feeling of impending doom.” The video (below) is from CNBC’s coverage of a press briefing.


“We have so much to look forward to — so much promise and potential of where we are and much reason for hope,” she continued. “But right now I’m scared.”

What’s got Walensky spooked to the brink of tears? Well, rising caseloads and deaths.

The seven-day moving average for cases is back above 60,000 for the first time since March 5, which certainly seems to suggest that Spring Break (which I’m told is a proper noun these days), premature reopenings, the lifting of mask mandates, the relaxation of containment measures, and miscellaneous close-contact revelry might be contributing to a nascent resurgence for COVID, which has spent the majority of Joe Biden’s first few months in office on the back foot.

Biden last week doubled his vaccination goal for the country to 200 million in his first 100 days as president. Herd immunity (or something like it) is just months away, even as concerns about vaccine-resistant variants remain a tail risk, both for markets and society more generally.

News on the vaccine front has been mostly positive, although the same certainly can’t be said for Europe. On Monday, for example, reports suggested New Yorkers 30 years and older would be able to receive a vaccine starting on March 30.

Still, jitters linger. “When we see that uptick in cases what we’ve seen before is that things really have a tendency to surge and surge big,” Walensky went on to warn. “Not only as your CDC director, but as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, [I] ask you to just, please, hold on a little while longer,” she begged.

The latest Pew survey showed roughly seven-in-ten US adults said they’d “definitely or probably” get vaccinated. That included 19% who indicated they’d already received at least one dose. That figure (the percentage of Americans who said they’d likely get a shot) has varied from as high as 72% last May to as low as 51% in September. It was 60% in November.

In a useful “fast facts”-type piece, Pew noted that when it comes to people you can count on to get vaccinated, atheists are about as reliable as it gets.

“Nine-in-ten atheists said in February that they would definitely or probably get a vaccine or had already received one,” Pew remarked. God willing. Or not.

Nearly half of White evangelicals (45%) said they would definitely or probably not get a jab.

76% of Americans said the economy would benefit if the majority of the public were vaccinated. Suffice to say the other 24% (most of whom said vaccinations would make little difference economically) are wrong, something they’ll discover the hard way in the event herd immunity isn’t achieved.


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21 thoughts on “CDC Director Walensky Tearfully Warns Of ‘Impending Doom’

    1. This summer we’re going to be in the shit again. We’re just not going to dodge all these variants at this point. We can expect we’ll have a US variant here eventually from whatever version manages to beat the vaccine first.

  1. Another scenario is the variant can make you very sick but not enough to be hospitalized depending on your health and biology. The point is we really do not know how things are going to turn out. But we are going to find out the hard way.

  2. The majority of the people vaccinated are older ones who were very careful anyway. The majority of the younger ones 20-40 have not been vaccinated and they are not careful because they think they are invincible (i have 3 kids whose ages are 31, 33 and 36). So we are a long way from heard immunity. In AZ Governor Ducy just lifted most of the Covid restrictions.

    1. I always come up short trying to understand the organized religion mindset. Viewed rationally it seems much of what they practice is add odds with what their ancient book of choice preaches. The first thing that comes to mind is their utter lack of concern for a life if it’s not their own or a group they think they belong to.

    2. I think given evidence in my own family, the protestants formed this weird cult of personality around Trump. I have an aunt who kept telling me how he was God’s chosen. The capacity for rationality is long gone there. It also has historically had a lot of individualism tied to it. Everyone is on their own personal path and nobody should burden others.

      In Catholicism there is a more resounding message around community and care for all in action but more and more members drift to that same vein of thought as protestants these days.

      The one that surprised me was Agnostics. Makes me wonder if Satanists broke 95%.

  3. The vaccine variant data is quite good. While all the vaccines are markedly less effective at preventing “any symptomatic disease” from one or two of the variants, all are very effective at preventing severe disease from all the variants. Emerging data also suggests some of the vaccines are also rather effective at reducing transmission – in other words, they also reduce or shorten asymptomatic disease. And, of course, some of the vaccine technologies allow variant-specific versions to be designed and produced quickly, to the point that in 2H, we may be getting booster shots tailored to the more troublesome variants.

    If you are in the US, which bet broadly on multiple vaccine candidates, you are not likely to see a fourth Covid surge at the awful levels of the late 2020 surge. New cases will rise because governors and people just can’t seem to make good decisions, hospitalizations will rise less and deaths less yet. If you are in Europe, which bet on one vaccine candidate that turns out to be a decent drug managed by the Three Stooges, things don’t look so good. If you are in a developing market, which hasn’t been able to afford to even place bets, things also don’t look so good – although with a normal human being in the Oval Office, vaccine assistance programs are picking up.

    Anyway, from the perspective of jittery stock investors I think a fourth Covid surge is a bigger short-term risk than the market has heretofore realized, but from a fundamental perspective, I think by mid or late summer Covid will be mostly under control in the US, add several months to that for Europe and, sadly, even longer for some ROW countries.

    This is really an amazing, historic, and, dare I say it, exciting time we are navigating through, from our fortunate positions as investors rather than, I assume, front-line workers or unemployed and queueing in food lines. I always tell friends that the markets get really fun about once a decade, and that even the luckiest among us will only get to have this much fun a couple-few times in our careers. This is one of those times.

      1. I agree, but the rate of severe Covid among the young and fearless is, mercifully for them, very low. The UK (B. variant may have a higher rate of severe disease, but it is still very low for that demographic.

        When the US has vaccinated the large majority of elder (60+ yo) and medically vulnerable, most of the middle-aged (40-60 yo), and the most highly exposed parts of the younger (20-40 yo), I expect we’ll see US Covid curves looking like Israel.

        In Israel, the more transmissible B. (UK) variant is dominant and Covid restrictions have been eased, yet its curves keep heading downward (see Israel is a real world experiment in the effectiveness of widespread vaccination, with 55% of the population having received at least 1 shot. At the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, you can see the curves for each country and compare to the % vaccinated. It looks like when you get to around 25% vaccinated, the curves are not moving up or down too much – that’s like the US and UK. Down around 5-15%, the fourth Covid surge is in full cry. For the few countries up around 40-55%, the curves are flat or declining.

        I expect that the US curves will look worse relative to other countries at a similar vaccination level, because we are truly the stupidest, most selfish, least disciplined population on earth – exaggerating and venting there, sorry – but no matter how brainless the individual, the vaccine still works, and being the richest country with the biggest and best biopharma industry is bailing us out.

        We’re vaccinating approx 1.0% of US population daily. In the next month, we’ll likely see that climb to 1.5% or even toward 2.0%. At 1.5%/day, you’re vaccinating 45% of the population every month. Sure, some vaccines are two-shot but even the first shot brings decent efficacy.

        This is a race between our weath+technology and our irresponsibility+stupidity. In Aesop’s Fables, the responsible Ant survives and the irresponsible Grasshopper doesn’t. In this particular fable, they both get vaccinated and make it. Granted, 20% of the Grasshoppers are hard-core Covid deniers and antivaxxers, so Covid therapeutics will remain a lucrative (and grievously unmet) market.

    1. I have a slightly different take on the situation. I think there is substantially more than “tail risk” for a significant fourth surge in the US due to B.1.1.7, ramping up strongly around mid-April to May. Dr. Walensky had good reason to be pleading and almost crying, because she has access to good data and knows how to interpret it. Yes, we have higher vaccine penetration now than in the UK in December, and than in Germany, France, Italy, etc currently, where B.1.1.7 is driving large surges and forcing lockdowns. But there’s pretty good population data around the increased infectivity of the B.1.1.7 strain: 43-90% more transmissable than the prior D614G strain in the UK, 49-74% in Denmark, Switzerland, and the US so far (Science, 03 Mar, 2021 DOI: 10.1126/science.abg3055). You would need a very high level of immunity (vaccination and/or prior infection) to inhibit transmission. We are not going to be at greater than 50% immunity at the time B.1.1.7 hits its spike in a few weeks. And as has been pointed out, a large share of our vaccinated population are elderly, who were out of circulation anyway and not the biggest carriers by a long shot. The biggest carriers are largely not vaccinated–although it is true that many of them have been infected prior. Going forward the transmission could be driven by kids (especially teenagers) going back to school. Check out Dr. Michael Osterholm’s statements and podcasts. Like him, I’d be glad to be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am.

      The other variants of greatest current concern are the Brazilian P1 strain and the South African B.351 strain. There is clinical trial data for J&J and Novavax from South Africa at a time when B.351 was widespread. Both vaccines showed decreased efficacy in South Africa compared with places (US, UK) where B.351 was absent, but still good efficacy at preventing severe disease and hospitalization in South Africa. This is good news.

      There is lab data testing the ability of the current vaccines to elicit response to these variants. The vaccines are protective, but less protective than against D614G and B.1.1.7. There is no clinical trial data against P1. The J&J vaccine was tested in Brazil, but at a time when the circulating strain was P2, not P1. The other vaccines haven’t been tested in Brazil. We can expect that the vaccines will be protective against P1, perhaps similarly to B.351—but this is an assumption, as there has been very little vaccination in Brazil or elsewhere in South America. What is clear, and still not fully appreciated, is that P1 has infected a lot of Brazilians (and now people in surrounding countries also) who had already been infected earlier in the pandemic by D614G or related “early” variants.

      Will the current vaccines protect you against infection by P1? Probably, to some extent. But prior infection 6 months ago isn’t very protective, as is abundantly clear from the situation in Manaus, and now elsewhere in Brazil. In essence, we’re setting the stage for a giant epidemiological experiment in the US: By July, we should have maybe 70-80% of the US population either vaccinated or having had prior infection with D614G or B.1.1.7. By then P1 (and B.351) will be well-seeded in the population, and then we’ll see what happens. In the best case, we are largely protected. In the worst case, it’s a new pandemic, a la Manaus. A final note: all of these variants that we’re talking about developed within about 9 months of the beginning of the pandemic. On the one hand, you would expect the most rapid viral evolution at the very beginning, when the newly-introduced virus is in theory “barely” able to infect humans effectively, and relatively speaking, a new mutation has a high probability of improving overall viral transmission (e.g. through mutations in the spike protein that could make it bind more tightly to the human ACE2 receptor, which is required for viral entry to human cells). On the other hand, over the course of the first few months of the pandemic, the virus was actively replicating in only a few million people. It has now had a chance to replicate in many millions of people. There is no reason, at this still early point in the pandemic, to think that P1 and B.351 and B.1.1.7 won’t continue to evolve to become better viruses.

      Dr. Walensky was actually perhaps too optimistic in her statements today. She said that we’re almost through with the pandemic, if we can just hold on until everybody in the US is vaccinated. In the best case this could be largely true, but it’s probably safer to project that we’re almost through with the first, acute phase of the pandemic. We’ll likely need continued vigilance, and frequent updates of the vaccines (with high penetrance) to keep ahead of variants in the US–and if we don’t put the economic might of the developed world behind a massive push to vaccinate the third world, then we’ll keep finding new variants that can evade our control measures. Will the developed world do this? I have some hope, but I would say there’s a little bit more than “tail risk” to threaten the thesis that we’re just a couple months away from a return to normal and “Party in the USA.”

  4. Great posts from jyl and joey. Thanks!

    The narrative that we are days away from herd immunity in the US is questionable. But joey nails something that is widely being ignored by the Pollyanna wall street “strategists”: “if we don’t put the economic might of the developed world behind a massive push to vaccinate the third world, then we’ll keep finding new variants that can evade our control measures.”

    Are we going to “seal the borders” and prohibit international travel entirely (again)? Anyone remember the calls from the right to close the border to all Africans when the Ebola virus first struck? How can this possibly good for the US economy?

    1. I think the current Administration realizes that a global disease has to be globally fought. So, I think, do the other G7 countries, China, etc. The cost of supplying vaccine globally would cost the G7, what, 14 basis points of GDP? I think it will be done. Countries will focus on their getting own house on the right tracks, then accelerate helping others. The EU is doing this, via CoVax even while desperately short of vaccine for EU residents. The US, under its new human leadership, is also donating to CoVax and providing doses directly to other NorAm countries. China is supplying vaccine to other countries and India will soon be producing billions of doses.

      I’ve mentioned this before, but never in any living human’s experience has the world been laid low by a global pandemic, and never in any’s human life has a global pandemic been rapidly ended by human action. These are historic times, and we are privileged to live through them (hopefully), to say nothing of invest during them.

      1. Yes this global proving of RNA vaccines is going to yield some tremendous fruit. I recall reading up on it a few years ago when small companies were desperately attempting to pilot it to build a universal influenza vaccine and they could barely attract funding. I hate to think where we would be if they failed. Now there is talk of trying it against even things like cancer. When we hit the other side of this crisis entirely there is going to be some incredible progress I suspect. Next up will be Crispr applications.

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