CDC Director Rochelle Walensky Tweets After Backlash Over Omicron Death Comments

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has tweeted following a backlash over comments she made in a television interview last week.

Walensky was criticised on social media after speaking about Omicron death statistics on ABC talk show Good Morning America on Friday, when she said that the majority of Omicron fatalities had occurred in people who already had other medical conditions at the same time—known as comorbidities.

"The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 per cent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities," she said.

"So really these are people who were unwell to begin with and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron."

On Twitter, some users considered Walensky's comments as disrespectful toward disabled or chronically ill people. Some used the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy.

Imani Barbarin, a disability rights activist, wrote on Saturday: "Contrary to popular belief, CDC Director, disabled people aren't just data points… How callous to say you're encouraged by the prospect of their deaths."

Matthew Cortland, a lawyer with chronic illness, tweeted: "It is "encouraging" to [Walensky] that chronically ill and disabled Americans are dying… our deaths clearly don't count."

On Sunday, Walensky issued a tweet in which she stressed the importance of protecting people with comorbidities against COVID.

"We must protect people with comorbidities from severe COVID-19. I went into medicine—HIV specifically—and public health to protect our most at-risk," she wrote. "CDC is taking steps to protect those at highest risk, including those with chronic health conditions, disabilities and older adults."

Jason McDonald, spokesperson for Walensky, told Newsweek: "Dr. Walensky did not intend comments in a recent television appearance to be hurtful toward those with disabilities. She is deeply concerned and cares about the health and well-being of people with disabilities and those with medical conditions who have been impacted by COVID-19. The CDC director continues her commitment to protect all Americans in this next stage of the pandemic."

Walensky's comments come as COVID-related deaths in the U.S. are on the rise, with the seven-day moving average of new deaths hitting 1,513 on January 7, according to CDC data.

This is still some way off the national record, when the seven-day moving average of new COVID deaths hit 3,421 on January 13, 2021. This is despite COVID cases in the U.S. reaching record highs, driven by the Omicron variant—though deaths and hospitalizations tend to lag several days or even weeks behind COVID cases.

Experts have said that Omicron appears to be causing less severe disease in people than the Delta variant did. But officials from the World Health Organization warned last week that this does not mean Omicron is "mild."

"Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people and it is killing people," said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Update, 1/11/22, 9:43 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include a quote from Walensky's spokesperson.

Rochelle Walensky
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks to a Senate committee in Washington, D.C. in November, 2021. Walensky faced criticism on social media over the past weekend. Chip Somodevilla/Getty