New CDC Director Defends Vaccine Mandates, School Closures

Dr. Mandy Cohen was formerly North Carolina’s health secretary.
New CDC Director Defends Vaccine Mandates, School Closures
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Mandy Cohen testifies in Washington on Nov. 30, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

The new director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Nov. 30 defended COVID-era policies like vaccine mandates in her first appearance before Congress.

“I’m very proud of the work we did in North Carolina,” Dr. Mandy Cohen, the new director, told Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) after he asked if she regretted any of the policies put into place in North Carolina, such as school closures, when she was the state’s health secretary.

“I feel like we did that in a way that was very inclusive,” she added.

When Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) noted that Dr. Cohen supported harsh measures as health secretary, including vaccine mandates, Dr. Cohen said it was time to “look forward” and start a “new chapter.”

“You have to remember, at different moments in time, we needed different solutions,” she said in response to how Americans would know whether the new director will support the same measures at the federal level.

“The good news is that we’re in a different place than we were before. We both have different tools and have different mechanisms to respond,” she said to another question, about whether she'd shut down schools if a pandemic happened again. “I can’t really address a hypothetical but I think we’ve learned a lot about how to approach things.”

Did closing schools harm students?

“We always knew in-person instruction was incredibly beneficial,” Dr. Cohen said.

“You'd be great in the sales department,” Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) said, prompting a rare smile from the new director.

Dr. Cohen replaced Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President Joe Biden’s first CDC director, over the summer. Dr. Walensky was an advocate for COVID-19 vaccines, masks, and school closures.

Dr. Cohen also indicated she supports mask mandates, saying all masks, including cloth masks, worked as a “barrier” and protected against COVID-19. The CDC recommends wearing “well-fitting” masks for protection.

Dr. Cohen’s answers sparked frustration from lawmakers of both parties.

“My neighbor would say, should I wear a cloth mask? I don’t know from your answer what I should tell them,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said that Dr. Cohen was in the perfect place to help the CDC reestablish credibility.

“If the CDC wants its credibility back, you’ve got to have a mea culpa moment. You’re in the perfect position to do it, because you had nothing to do with their decisions at the time. So there’s no reason to defend it,” he said.

“It’s ok to say ‘it didn’t make any sense to shut down schools.’ The data shows that now. ‘It didn’t make sense to do major lockdowns.’ The data shows that now. ‘It doesn’t make sense to mask kids.’ The data shows that now. It’s okay to say it. And the public will reward you for it,” he added later.

But Dr. Cohen refused to say authorities in North Carolina or at the CDC did anything wrong, repeatedly steering the discussion back to the future, not the past.

She did refer broadly several times to lessons learned during the pandemic, including being more transparent.

Answers on Illness in China, Lab in California

Dr. Cohen also answered questions about other topics, including a bout of illness in China.

Dr. Cohen said that the CDC was in touch with counterparts in China, where the agency has an office, and that the surge in respiratory infections in China was not, based on current information, from “a new or novel pathogen.”

The World Health Organization and Chinese officials have also said the illnesses are from existing illnesses such as influenza.

“The Chinese officials have shared with us that there are no novel pathogens, and we were able to corroborate that information across other sources from our European Union partners and others to make sure that we’re getting a complete picture,” Dr. Cohen said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said the situation in China “brings us back, sadly, to the early days of COVID-19” when there was a “lack of reliable information coming out of China.”

“We are hoping that you can put some pressure in an attempt to try to get China to not mislead the world as they did with COVID-19,” Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said.

Some lawmakers pressed Dr. Cohen on a laboratory in China that was operating without permission, after a House report said the CDC refused to speak for months to local officials who raised the alarm.

Dr. Cohen said the CDC investigated quickly and found no indications the lab was experimenting with Ebola or other select agents.

She echoed an earlier CDC statement that said the report “includes numerous inaccuracies, including both the charge that CDC did not respond to local requests for aid and the false implication that CDC had the authority to unilaterally investigate or seize samples from” the lab. The agency said it was actively engaged in the investigation into the facility.