WASHINGTON – No matter how encouraging Andy Slavitt's news is at the government’s coronavirus briefings, he can always count on next-up Dr. Rochelle Walensky to deliver a downbeat.
After the tumultuous briefings of the Trump era — when top doctors would troop to the podium in the White House press room only to be upstaged by spurious pronouncements from Donald Trump himself — the thrice-weekly virtual sessions of 2021 have taken on a more restrained and predictable rhythm.
President Joe Biden stays away. The core players stick to their expertise. Data rules.
If the Trump briefings made for more stirring television, the Biden ones are designed to showcase the science-based side of the crisis, with a tone based more on facts than flourish.
The briefings generally open with Slavitt or Jeff Zients, the top White House official on the pandemic response, delivering an update on Biden’s latest efforts to contain the virus — a can-do if rather monotone message about what steps the administration is taking to protect people and get them vaccinated.
Next up is Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She brings the numbers.
With blunt clarity, she runs through the latest statistics on new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the deadly disease that has coursed through the nation for more than a year, killing at least 550,000 in the U.S. Even when the trends are encouraging, she acts as a Greek chorus of one, warning people against letting down their guard.
Never was that more evident than Monday, when Walensky diverted from her script about a recent uptick in hospitalizations and deaths to confess that “right now I’m scared.” Her voice thick with emotion, Walensky said she had a recurring feeling of “impending doom” even though she noted many reasons for hope.
She laid out her fears that the country was headed for a “fourth surge” of the virus if people aren’t more careful, her words commanding headlines and overshadowing the president’s own announcement later in the day about new efforts to expand vaccination programs.
Biden himself echoed her sentiments, adding that “if we let our guard down now, we could see a virus getting worse, not better.”
Still, Walensky's stark warning surprised even some White House aides, who have made a point of giving the doctors broad latitude to address the public, consistent with Biden’s pledge to let science guide the government response to the pandemic.
It’s quite a contrast to the last administration, when a series of top government advisers were silenced or self-censored for fear of sparking the ire of Trump, who tried to play down the threat of the virus to the public, even as its toll became clear.
There’s a political aim too, as the White House works to maintain its high approval ratings with the public for Biden’s handling of the virus.
“I think we’re getting past the partisanship through consistent, effective communication,” Zients said recently. “Communication, transparency, progress are the key ways to get this done and to make sure that the American people understand the status of the pandemic and our response.”
Following Walensky’s situational update, then comes “next slide, please” Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci delivers a mini seminar, complete with charts and slides, citing the latest journal articles on rates of infection in different populations or the relative risks of various mutations or another pressing scientific question of the day.
Fauci’s chalk talks make it clear the briefings are aimed at more than one audience. He toggles from advice for caregivers and jargon that only a physician could parse to more plain-spoken pronouncements for the general public.
A flavor of Fauci from Monday’s briefing:
“If you look at the multi-system manifestations of COVID-19, they are multitudinous, the most important and common of which is the acute respiratory distress syndrome. But we know now there are neurological disorders, cardiac dysfunction, acute kidney injury, hypercoagulability. Bottom line: This is a very serious disease, which has already led to the death of about 550,000 people in the United States. Next slide.”
Fauci and Walensky have autonomy as to what they’re briefing on, according to a senior administration official, with the White House only having a sense of what they plan to discuss.
The briefings at times feature other guests who home in on specific topics like virus testing, supply chain challenges or efforts to make sure under-served communities get adequate attention.
And then comes question time — an opportunity for a limited number of unseen journalists to raise a virtual hand, generally without the friction that could crop up during Trump-era briefings.
The Biden administration sessions typically livestream on whitehouse.gov at midday and sometimes don’t make the cut on cable TV. It’s a far different dynamic from the days when Trump tried to time the briefings closer to the evening news and would boast about the ratings.
Trump relished claiming the role of “wartime president” but then used his platform to sometimes push unsubstantiated theories that drew ridicule and condemnation, such as his promotion of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and his musing about ingesting toxic disinfectant to cure infection.
Biden’s briefings are generally carried live by CNN and MSNBC — unless more pressing news breaks out — and Fox will occasionally dip in with coverage.
Communications experts say they serve a vital role regardless of how many people watch.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a presidential scholar and professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Biden White House briefings aren’t designed to be regular viewing by the public but rather to provide “an ongoing, accurate stream of up-to-date information.”
In the Trump era, she said, the theatrics of the briefings overpowered the information value. “You kept waiting for something outrageous to be said. You were watching the dynamic between the individuals. It was almost a kind of performance art.”
After the politicization of the briefings under Trump, she said, the Biden administration is “trying to rehabilitate our trust in those statements.”
Though Zients and Slavitt have repeatedly used their appearances to promote Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, Jamieson pointed to the difference between White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s briefings and the health briefings: “We’re starting to separate the voice of science and the voice of politics in a way that’s healthy.”
The briefings may not be must-see TV, but Slavitt says they offer a proven formula.
“It’s not always what people want to hear,” he said, “but it’s always directly what people, for the most part, say that they’re looking for, which is just the straight story.”