The former Baltimore city health commissioner has been criticized for some of her views on COVID-19 mandates. In her talk opening the AMCP Nexus 2022 meeting, Wen said that if public health officials don’t take into account public attitudes, it could affect the ability to deal with future public health emergencies.
Continued emphasis on COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates runs the risk of further eroding trust in public health, Leana Wen, M.D., warned in her keynote address this morning at AMCP Nexus 2022.
Wen, noting she has advocated for taking a “more measured approach” to the COVID-19 pandemic, said, “if we are ignoring where people are and not meeting people where they are, which is being able to engage with (their) lives, that might further affect our ability to get people to trust in what we want them to do — and need them to do — in the future for other public health emergencies.” Those future emergencies might include, she said, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis or a more dangerous strain of SAR-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19
Wen said that childhood vaccination rates are falling while rates of sexually transmitted diseases and drug overdoses are increasing. and she linked those trends to backlash against COVID-19 mandates and how it is “bleeding into other aspects of public health.”
“I really worry that the more we are continuing to lean into various COVID mandates that it is further hurting our ability to influence other aspects of public health,” she told the large audience of pharmacists and managed care executives. “I am so worried about this. Public health depends on public trust.”
Wen, a former Baltimore city health commissioner who is now a research professor of health policy and management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and regular contributor to the Washington Post, has been come under some criticism for views about relaxing some of the precautions against COVID-19. Public health academics, advocates and workers have posted a petition calling on the American Public Health Association to withdraw its invitation to have her speak at the organization’s meeting next month in Boston.
Wen didn’t reference the controversy in her talk today, but she mentioned “intellectual honesty.” She told the audience about being pulled aside at a recent conference by people with questions about immunity to COVID-19 after infection. Wen said they didn’t want to be heard asking the questions because they feared being seen as being anti-vaxxers.
“There has been this sense, including among healthcare professionals, that if we acknowledge recovery (from a COVID-19 infection) and how you get immunity from recovery that somehow that is going to prevent people from being vaccinated,” Wen said.
People who get COVID-19 should get vaccinated, she said, noting that the hybrid immunity from a bout of COVID-19 and vaccination might be the most effective of all. But Wen made a plea for health officials not to overthink about how their statements might be portrayed. “If we keep on thinking about how what we are going to be saying is going to be distorted by others and used in a certain way, then it comes across as we are not being genuine.”
Wen said one of her regrets regarding commentary about the pandemic by her and others is that more emphasis should have been put on public health policy needing to change as circumstances and understanding change. “Change” she said, “is the bedrock of good public health policy.“ Wen said that Anthony Fauci and others had been accused of being “flip floppers” when they were adapting views and recommendations as a clearer understanding of how COVID-19 was transmitted emerged. She mentioned vaccination in the same vein.
“With vaccination being widespread, we also changed our recommendations for how we can lead our lives. The fact that we are all here, in person — I hear that there are more than 2,000 attendees at this conference — and most of us are not masking and associating freely with each other. We are able to do that now because of the vaccines that protect so well against severe disease.
Wen also said COVID-19 was endemic. “We have to figure out how we are going to be living with COVID. (I am) not saying it is not real or that COVID is over. But we have to figure out new strategies for living with it.”