Better COVID Messaging? We'll CDC About That | Crooked Media
August 17, 2022
What A Day
Better COVID Messaging? We'll CDC About That

In This Episode

  • CDC director Rochelle Walensky announced Wednesday the agency is making big structural and cultural changes, following widespread criticism over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, host of Crooked’s America Dissected, joins us to discuss what that overhaul will look like, and why it matters.
  • And in headlines: a deadly explosion erupted at a mosque in Kabul, Liz Cheney hints at a White House bid after her defeat in Wyoming’s House Republican primary, and former Vice President Mike Pence said he’d consider testifying before the January 6th committee.


Show Notes:



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For a transcript of this episode, please visit




Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Thursday, August 18th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


Erin Ryan: And I’m Erin Ryan and this is What A Day where we are encouraging Taylor Lautner’s fiancee, Taylor Dome to keep her last name rather than creating an all new Taylor Lautner. 


Priyanka Aribindi: The world does not need two Taylor Lautners. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. Taylor Dome. What are you doing loca? Oh, it’s where have you been loca? [laughter] [music break]


Priyanka Aribindi: On today’s show, Rudy Giuliani appeared before an Atlanta grand jury investigating whether Donald Trump tried to interfere with the 2020 election. Plus, Mike Pence said he’d consider talking to the January 6th committee. 


Erin Ryan: But first, we turn to news coming out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yesterday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky announced the agency will be making big structural and cultural changes. The reasoning behind this decision, she admitted, is that the CDC kind of effed up their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But Priyanka, why now? Isn’t it a little bit late? 


Priyanka Aribindi: I mean, just a little, but back in April Walensky commissioned an external review of the CDC following widespread criticism of the agency’s response to COVID. Those findings were released yesterday, and you probably won’t be too surprised by what was inside. The Review discusses how the ever changing public guidance from the CDC has been, quote, “confusing and overwhelming”. You probably remember that yourselves from living through the past few years. The report also found that COVID data published by the agency is often messy or incomplete, and that delayed decisions over whether to recommend booster shots to some age groups. 


Erin Ryan: I get the CDC is kind of blaming themselves while appropriate. But I got to say, it’s also a little bit attributable to Americans complete lack of science literacy. To be honest, we’ve all felt the whiplash from the CDC’s guidance since this all started. I mean, my vaccines are currently expiring in my body. It’s been a long time, been a lot of whiplash. So we didn’t need anyone to tell us that messaging really isn’t their thing, but we can give them some credit. It made for some good comedy so we could laugh through the tears. 


[clip of Dr. Abdul El-Sayed] I know science is difficult and this is a novel virus and all of that, but who’s running messaging at the CDC? Huh? 


[clip of unspecified speaker] I want to start off by thanking each and every one of you for your dedication and commitment to blindly following every single one of our guidelines that we seem to be pulling out of our ass during this never ending shit show of a pandemic. 


[clip of unspecified speaker] The CDC announced that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks or socially distance, except if you go to most places. 


[clip of unspecified speaker] If you test negative, but you’re an Aries or any other fire sign, test again, your immune system is a free spirit, so the tests have trouble detecting Covid. 


[clip of unspecified speaker] CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has been taking media training in an effort to improve messaging. She now learned 40 different ways to say, we have no idea. 


Erin Ryan: You know what, I take issue with that fire sign comment. I think air and earth signs would be the– 


Priyanka Aribindi: Earth signs? 


Erin Ryan: Bats. Earth signs, caves. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Whoa. 


Erin Ryan: Right. 


Priyanka Aribindi: We’re poking some holes in this. Anyways, this isn’t just a rebuke for the CDC in light of its COVID response. We are seeing a lot of the agency’s flaws yet again as it’s dealing with the current monkeypox outbreak. I touched on that with my conversation with Dr. Carlton Thomas in yesterday’s episode, but hopefully some of the changes outlined by Walensky will help here. . 


Erin Ryan: To break this all down for us we have our favorite epidemiologist, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, host of Crooked’s America Dissected. Dr. Abdul, thanks for joining us. Again, it is stiff competition for our favorite epidemiologist, so. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Oh, wow. Well, thank you for having me. And I’ll do my best because, man, if I can’t win an in-house competition, what am I even doing? [laugh] Hopefully I can communicate this a little bit better than the CDC. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah, I hope so. There’s a limbo bar to clear. So starting off with the basics here. Walk us through what this reorganization would look like. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So the CDC announced in April that they were going to do an agency wide study to look at what were the barriers to their response. And they found a couple of very big ones. Number one, obviously communication. In that respect, the CDC is really investing in their communications platform and thinking a lot more about how you communicate in a 21st century media cycle. I think they’ve leaned a lot on the notion that their authorities and that authority actually matters for something in 2022. But apparently that’s just not correct. And we’ve been living through that for the past two years. The other piece is that they had a real challenge engaging with the rest of government, whether you’re talking about the rest of the federal government or you’re talking about other government entities like city or state health departments. Uh and so they’re building an in-house intergovernmental affairs department that can be a hub for all of these communications. And then the last part that’s really salient here is that they realized that they just weren’t getting science out in time to be impactful. And we lived through all of that. And you played a montage that sort of spoke to all of the challenges, both communicating, but also getting timely scientific information. And so they’re bringing two really important scientific offices right under the director. More broadly, though, it’s also an attitude change. The CDC has for a long time really seen itself as sort of almost an academic department. And obviously that doesn’t work in real time when you’re trying to respond to ongoing public health challenges. And people are a lot more interested in whether or not they’re going to get a paper published. And so they’re trying to address that too. The last part I think is important to remember here is that the leadership of the CDC right now is a director that doesn’t come from government public health and has never led an organization this size. And so these moves are really important and a really important step. The question is, does this leader have the capacity to actually make these kinds of uh organizational shifts? Because with all of these things, the devil’s in the details. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Totally, it really does sound like they’re trying to make the organization and what they put out a little more user friendly, actually a lot more user friendly than geared towards academia, as you were saying, and publishing papers and whatnot. And so from that perspective, that seems like it might be pretty great for like, you know, regular people who are living through COVID, monkeypox, whatever the next few years end up throwing at us. But obviously, the CDC has really struggled with its public messaging for a while now, and that’s been eroding a lot of the trust in what should be one of the best public health agencies in the world. So moving forward, what can it do to kind of improve how it delivers news and guidance, what have you? 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So one of the things that they are planning to do is simplify the website, and that makes a lot of sense because a lot of this is, if you’re a CDC scientist, in some respects, you assume that your messaging is going to be sieved down through other health professionals. And that’s just not how the world works in 2022. And so simplifying the website so it doesn’t feel like you’re talking to other medical professionals or public health professionals, but instead talking directly to the public obviously makes a lot of sense. The other thing here is an ethos of conversation. We in public health used to assume that because we had authority, because we had degrees and had studied this stuff for a long time, that people would just listen to us. And unfortunately, that’s just not how the world works. There’s a lot of competition for our attention in the first place, but secondarily, there are a lot of folks who are going to second guess or third guess uh what an agency like the CDC is going to do and to say and not only that, but even scientists and public health professionals who are engaging with CDC debates are not having this debate quietly with other colleagues. They’re doing it live on Twitter. Um, and so I think engaging the public conversation in this kind of media environment requires you to be far faster than you were, to be a lot more simple than you were, and just to be a lot more thoughtful about how you talk in a way where you know your words are going to get parsed by folks who are doing it in good faith and folks who are doing it in bad faith. 


Erin Ryan: Hmm. Interesting. Uh, So we’ve talked about how COVID data collection has been a huge obstacle throughout the pandemic, in part because of how our health care system is structured. How can the agency fix this? 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, this is a really important question, and I appreciate you asking it, because the CDC is one agency in a huge HHS Health and Human Services enterprise in the federal government. And then all of that is just one arm of government public health. You also have municipal public health departments, over 3000 of them in state public health departments, and there are dozens of those. And so the CDC cannot fix a lot of what’s broken in both our public health environment and then, more broadly, our health care system. And until we’re serious about building the kind of health care system where we’re focused on the well-being of people and making sure that sick people can heal, and more importantly, that people don’t have to get sick in the first place rather than profiteering off of the bodies of sick people. Um, it’s going to be really hard for the CDC to actually fix so many of the other problems that we face in American health and health care. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s wrap up really quickly by taking a step back. So despite, you know, all of the problems that the CDC has faced, what have they gotten right over the past few years? What do you hope kind of continues throughout this reorg and in their future? 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: In public health, you have to be prepared for whatever comes around the pike. Nobody knew two and a half years ago that there was a such thing called SARS-CoV-2, that the next huge pandemic would be caused by a coronavirus. At the same time, had you talked to somebody, you know, a year ago and said that monkeypox was going to be the next big public health challenge that we’d be facing, people would be quite surprised by that. And so it’s really important the CDC maintains a level of expertise that is broad, not just deep. And being able to actually be a place where expertise is cultivated and empowered, it has to remain a goal of the CDC. The other thing that I think they did really well is around approval and recommendations on the vaccine side. And to this end, I do think that not only is it important to continue to be really smart about getting experts in a room and really hashing out details about big public health recommendations like a vaccine. But then we talked about this already being able to explain them to the public in a way that’s comprehensive and concise. 


Priyanka Aribindi: As always, thank you so much for joining us Dr. Abdul. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Priyanka, it was my privilege. I really appreciate the thoughtful questions. 


Priyanka Aribindi: We love having you. Please be sure to check out America Dissected wherever you get your podcasts and Dr. Abdul’s YouTube channel More Context, Less Conflict, where every week he covers different public health topics and everything else going on in our crazy world. 


Erin Ryan: We will continue covering the latest scientific and health news. But. That’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads. 




Priyanka Aribindi:  Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Priyanka Aribindi: An explosion at a mosque in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul yesterday, killed at least ten people and wounded dozens more. That is according to the numbers reported by the time of our recording at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday night. Authorities said that the massive explosion was carried out by a suicide bomber during evening prayers. A prominent Imam was killed and several children were among the wounded. No one took immediate responsibility for the attack. But this does come as the Islamic State group has ramped up attacks since the Taliban took over just one year ago. 


Erin Ryan: I can’t believe it’s been a year. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I know. 


Erin Ryan: The amount of backsliding in that country is horrible. It’s a shame. 


Priyanka Aribindi: It’s awful. 


Erin Ryan: A federal judge ordered CVS, Walgreens and Walmart to pay over $650 million yesterday for fueling the opioid crisis in two Ohio counties. Two Ohio counties.


Priyanka Aribindi: Two. 


Erin Ryan: Just two. 


Priyanka Aribindi: That is so wild. 


Erin Ryan: I do not have the number of counties in America at hand right now, but I know that it is significantly more than two.


Priyanka Aribindi: Than two! 


Erin Ryan: That’s a lot of money if you spread that out across the country. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 


Erin Ryan: This ruling marks the first time a federal judge has ever ordered these pharmacy chains to pay a specific dollar amount for their roles in the epidemic. And the large sum of cash is only one third of what the two counties need to actually address the damage the opioid epidemic has caused their communities. That is a staggering amount of money. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Can’t even wrap your brain around– 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. 


Priyanka Aribindi: –what that would be. The damage that this has caused and what it would take to come close to rectifying that. You can’t even completely do it because it’s so many lives have already been lost. Some news from this week’s primary elections. We drew one step closer to John McCain’s unrealized dream of a Palin in the federal government. 


Erin Ryan: Oh, no. [laughter]


Priyanka Aribindi: [indistinct] I truly, yeah. [laughter] Not great.


Erin Ryan: Don’t put that into the universe. No. Ugh.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. The former Alaska governor moved ahead in her congressional primary. Sarah Palin and three other candidates will compete for Alaska’s only House seat in a ranked choice general election come November. Already terrified. Over here, over in Wyoming, Republican House representative and co-chair of the January 6th committee, Liz Cheney, lost her bid for reelection in a speech that saw her compare herself to Abraham Lincoln. Cheney conceded to her Trump backed opponent, Harriet Hageman, on Tuesday night. She said, quote, “This primary election is over, but now the real work begins”, on what campaign? We are a little terrified to find out. She also had this to say about her future in politics on The Today show yesterday. 


[clip of The Today Show host] Are you thinking about running for president? 


[clip of Liz Cheney] Not going to make any announcements here this morning, but it is something that I am thinking about and I’ll make a decision in the coming months. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Cool, cool, cool. Just I, I need a moment for myself. 


Erin Ryan: Extremely uncool. Extremely uncool. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I need a moment. 


Erin Ryan: Liz Cheney. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Please don’t do this. 


Erin Ryan: She’s great on the January 6th Committee. No notes. Every other thing she’s ever done. Notes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: A lot of notes. Cheney isn’t the only anti-Trump Republican to feel the wrath of the electorate. Only two House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year won their primaries this year, David Valadao of California and Dan Newhouse of Washington State. Of the remaining eight, four lost their primaries and four stepped down. 


Erin Ryan: You know, it’s funny, Sarah Palin being in the House is sort of terrifying because of my residual feelings about her from the year 2008. But I think if she were elected as part of the Republican caucus in 2022. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Like would she be crazy? 


Erin Ryan: She would be the Mitt Romney of Marjorie Taylor Greenes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, kind of. 


Erin Ryan: The Biden administration made more progress on the issue of student loan debt this week. On Tuesday, the Department of Education said it would cancel $3.9 billion dollars in debt for over 200,000 students who attended ITT Technical Institute. Wow. Flashback to taking a sick day from school, watching afternoon talk show trash, Ricki Lake, etc. etc.. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Listen if you owned a TV in the late nineties? Early 2000s? You know all about ITT Tech.


Erin Ryan: You definitely know about it. You maybe were like, okay, I know about it. Not interested, but a lot of people did go to ITT Tech.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, it turns out. 


Erin Ryan: It’s a private, for profit college that had several campuses nationwide when it was in operation. The institution lost all of its federal funding back in 2016 for misleading prospective students about its programs in order to generate revenue. There’s no exact timeline for when borrowers will officially get their slates wiped clean. But the department said that those who are eligible for relief will not have to make more payments on their loans even after the current loan pause expires. Controversial statement incoming Priyanka. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m ready. 


Erin Ryan: If we’re going to start penalizing institutions for misleading people about degrees in order to generate revenue. Watch out masters degree programs. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Watch out pretty much everything.


Erin Ryan: They’re coming for you Jay School. 


Priyanka Aribindi: They are. They really are. A bad day yesterday for Trump’s all-star 2020 legal lineup, the former president’s lawyer and budget venue booking agent, Rudy Giuliani, appeared before a grand jury in Atlanta to testify for a reported 6 hours about attempts to overturn the election results in the state. What Giuliani revealed, if anything, is yet unknown. Unlike with previous Giuliani appearances, this time we don’t have photographic evidence of the truth just oozing out of him. 


Erin Ryan: Ohhh. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Your welcome for that disgusting visual to kick off your morning. 


Erin Ryan: Unnecessary. Too early.


Priyanka Aribindi: Also in legal hot water is Jenna Ellis, another one of Trump’s election fraud crazed attorneys. Yesterday, a judge from her home state of Colorado ordered her to appear before the same Georgia grand jury as Rudy. Just a sweet little reunion for all of them. 


Erin Ryan: And in other January 6th news, if you were wondering how calling for your subordinates execution affects loyalty, here’s your answer. Former Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday that he would consider a formal invitation to testify before the House committee investigating the insurrection. Whether the committee will ask to talk with Pence is TBD. The former VP also denounced Republican calls to defund the FBI following the agency’s raid on Trump’s Mar-a- Lago estate. He made these comments at a political event in New Hampshire, one of several states with early primaries that Pence has visited as he positions himself as a more repressed alternative to Trump in 2024. Yeah, because my big problem with Trump is he’s too interesting. What I want is a politician who has his exact same ideas but is really boring. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Honestly, like some of these people, they might. Don’t put that out there. Don’t put that out there. And moving on from Trump’s election crimes, there is also a story about his business crimes. The New York Times is reporting that Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, will take a plea deal today in a very hefty fraud case being tried in Manhattan. Prosecutors say that Weisselberg helped carry out a scheme to avoid paying taxes on lavish corporate perks. He is expected to plead guilty to 15 felonies related to the scheme and will cooperate with the district attorney’s office as the larger case against the Trump Organization moves forward. Weisselberg could have gotten up to 15 years in prison, reportedly under the terms of the deal. He may spend as little as 100 days behind bars. The guilty plea is bad news for Trump and his family, but there are limits to exactly how bad it is. Sources for the Times say that Weisselberg will not implicate any of the Trumps if he takes the stand in the trial. Hey, why? Why did you get this deal if you’re not doing this? [laughing] I’m a little confused. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah, I mean, it is a deal in the same way that me going into a store and being like, I want to buy this bag that costs $200, I will pay you $5. And they’re like, okay, deal. What? 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. In that it makes absolutely no fucking sense. Sure.


Erin Ryan: Yeah, not at all. 


Priyanka Aribindi: And those are the headlines. 


Erin Ryan: One more thing before we go. The wait is over, Crooked’s new podcast, Dare We Say, is officially here. And for its debut episode out now, best friends, Josie Totah, Alycia Pascual-Peña, and Yasmine Hamady give you ten hilarious tips on how to celebrate your birthday. You don’t want to miss it. New episodes of Dare We Say drop every Thursday wherever you get your podcasts. [music break]


Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Cower at the second coming of Sarah Palin and tell your friends to listen. 


Erin Ryan: And if you’re into reading and not just Trump organization guilty pleas like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Erin Ryan. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


[spoken together] And let the truth ooze out Rudy Giuliani. 


Erin Ryan: Oh, yuck. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Keep it in. Keep it in. 


Erin Ryan: It’s like a terrible title of a Charlie Brown holiday special for a heat wave. [laugh] There’s never been a sweatier man. 


Priyanka Aribindi: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein and our executive producers are Lita Martínez and Leo Duran. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.