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Incoming CDC chief tells her family they'll be wearing masks for the better part of 2021

“Over time we will be able to maybe one day not be in our masks anymore, but I have told my family I anticipate they’ll be wearing a mask for the better part of ’21,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a video produced by her hospital last month.
Walensky took part in the video a few weeks before President-elect Joe Biden appointed her on December 7 to be his CDC chief when he takes office, and she’s made few public comments since then, and declined to comment for this story.
The video, plus another video Walensky appears in, are part of an effort to help educate hospital employees about the coronavirus vaccines, according to Dr. Paul Biddinger, director of emergency preparedness for Mass General Brigham.
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Health care workers in the US started receiving Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine this week, and it’s expected they could get Moderna’s vaccine starting next week.
Some surveys and focus groups have shown that many health care workers are hesitant to get the vaccines.
In one of the videos, Walensky explains the basics of the two vaccines, including that they use a new type of technology, they need to be given in two doses, and they have to be kept at cold temperatures.
Dr. William Schaffner, a longtime adviser to the CDC on vaccines, said Walensky, a practicing infectious disease specialist, is well positioned to encourage health care professionals to take the shot.
“What Rochelle will have is instant credibility with the practicing community. They will know that she knows what it’s like to be at the bedside of a very sick patient,” he said.
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Schaffner added that he thinks Walensky will be an effective communicator in general — a much needed skill for her new job, given that many Americans, not just health care workers, are hesitant about the new vaccine.
“She’s clear, articulate and she can deliver messages with a smile. You can just look at her and just by her presence know that she is both competent and dedicated,” said Schaffner, a liaison representative on the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
Mistrust of the coronavirus vaccine was a major topic of discussion at an ACIP meeting last week.
“We’re seeing more and more nurses and health care providers say they’d rather wait to accept the vaccine,” Dr. José Romero, chairman of the panel, said at the meeting Saturday.
At that meeting, committee members discussed a survey of nearly 13,000 nurses, which showed that only 34% planned to voluntarily get the vaccine if their employers don’t require them to get it.
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“I have heard from my colleagues in the hospital that some of the nurses and health care workers are unwilling to be vaccinated because they have heard that it’s going to affect their fertility — and there are some other myths that are floating around,” Carol Hayes, a nurse midwife who’s a liaison representative to ACIP, said at the meeting.
“We’re going to have to really seriously address these myths that are floating around, and I’m not even sure how to start to do that,” she added.
The nurses’ survey was done in the first half of October, before data came out from Pfizer and Moderna’s large-scale clinical trials showing that the vaccines had no serious safety concerns and were 95% effective.
Biddinger said he thinks health care workers’ attitudes might have changed since then.
“I think people have had some more time to read about and think about the vaccine,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm. I’ve fielded many emails from people who want to know how to get it at the earliest possible moment.”
Still, hospitals like his continue to do educational campaigns for their employees, like the videos Walensky appeared in.
“At Vanderbilt, we’ve been doing Covid Vaccine 101, 102, 103, 104,” said Schaffner, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We have to educate our own work force and answer their questions.”
He said Walensky struck the right note in her hospital’s video when she said that even with the vaccine, “we should manage our expectations in terms of taking off our masks.”
It might be tough for people to hear Walensky’s message that masks will still be necessary well into the new year, Schaffner noted.
“I know that’s a hard sell, but I think it’s a smart sell. It’s a science-based sell, and we have to stick with that,” he said.

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