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Community Ties Are Key To More Vaccinations, Says CDC Director

Director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky (at right) sits on the ground next to a child who is being vaccinated on his right arm by an L.A. County Public Health doctor at Ted Watkins Memorial Park. Walensky and the doctor are wearing protective masks.
Director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, visited a vaccination site at Ted Watkins Memorial Park in Watts on May 5.
(Ashley Balderrama for LAist)
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As coronavirus infections continue to climb, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky toured the Los Angeles County vaccine site at Ted Watkins Park on May 5. We spoke with Walensky about L.A. County’s vaccine efforts and the future of the pandemic.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, sits at a table during an interview with KPCC reporter Jackie Fortiér
Director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, visits a vaccination site at Ted Watkins Memorial Park in Watts on May 5.
(Ashley Balderrama for LAist)

What is Los Angeles County doing well in regards to COVID-19 vaccinations that you’d like to see replicated elsewhere?

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First of all, the outreach to the community is unparalleled. They have the federally qualified health care centers that work in parks like this one, the work of the Department of Public Health to do outreach to the community to reach people where they are, to have trusted messengers, to vaccinate children in a park where they happen to be in [what’s a] safe space for them — parks that they come back to every day. So I think that the outreach has been extraordinary. The Department of Public Health itself has done an incredible job with their data systems, to be able to integrate the data systems and really get a good picture of what's going on here in the county. And it's really just been inspiring for me to learn from them.

Genomic sequencing identifies which coronavirus variants are infecting people. It’s how we track new variants in our population, but federal funding has dried up. L.A. County health officials say they can’t afford to do as much genomic sequencing as a result, while some health departments have stopped altogether. Do you think we’re losing the ability to understand how much transmission there is in the U.S. and to track new variants?

First of all, I will say at the federal level we need more resources towards this pandemic. And that is for a vaccine and boosters in the Fall, that is for global work, that is for domestic surveillance and domestic sequencing. So we do need more resources. As we turn the page and go to the next chapter, whatever this pandemic has in store for us, we at CDC work hard to have our genomic sequencing reflect the number of cases that we have, so that we can detect a variant that is prevalent at anything more than 0.1%. So we really do scale up our sequencing for that level of detection. And we have detected variants at that level. So, yes, we do need more resources. Yes, it's critically important to continue the important surveillance work that we're doing, including genomic sequencing. I think it's sporadic but there is not enough going on right now.
Director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky stands looking at a county health worker and L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer during her tour of the vaccine site at Ted Watkins Park.
Director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, left, speaking with a county health worker and L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer at Ted Watkins Memorial Park in Watts, Los Angeles on May 5th 2022.
(Ashley Balderrama for LAist)

Under what circumstances will we have a universal COVID-19 vaccine that will work on all known coronavirus variants?

Active research is going on right now. Do I think that we're going to have a universal COVID vaccine in the months ahead? No. I think that this is more in the years ahead. And that is going to be critically important … because it's not just COVID. It's been [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome] and it's been [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome]. And in fact, It's not just one COVID — it's been numerous variants.

An estimated 26 states are poised to ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. From a public health perspective, what is your greatest fear if Roe falls?

I'm deeply concerned about this. One of the major challenges I think that the overturning of Roe would pose is that ... care [for] maternal health and termination of a pregnancy will not be equally accessible for all people, and that is deeply disturbing. CDC activities will be ... to equitably address public health and [the] public health workforce, availability and surveillance and data, and to review the data to make healthcare more accessible.
What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.