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Reported next CDC director pushed masks, school quarantines while admitting low COVID risk for kids

Mandy Cohen talked school reopening while threatening to sue districts that eased quarantine rules. Admitted making COVID decisions based on what peers were doing.

Published: June 5, 2023 11:32pm

The reported next director of the CDC is under scrutiny for how she led North Carolina's public health response to COVID-19, particularly the disconnect between her words and actions on risk level and school reopening.

Mandy Cohen, then-secretary of North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services, went so far as threatening to sue a school district for rescinding one-size-fits-all quarantine policies in fall 2021, more than a year after publicly declaring schools are a trivial source of COVID spread.

Now executive vice president and CEO of Aledade Care Solutions, Cohen also suggested she had made decisions about COVID restrictions without independently evaluating scientific evidence.

Cohen would take over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as congressional Republicans and school reopening advocates continue to shine a harsh light on Director Rochelle Walensky's decisions and communications ahead of her scheduled June 30 resignation.

Walensky will testify before the House Oversight COVID subcommittee next week.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten reluctantly admitted during a congressional hearing in April that she had Walensky's direct phone number.

The hearing was about the teacher union's role in revising CDC draft guidance in February 2021 about reopening schools.

A Freedom of Information Act production last week revealed Walensky's friendly texts with Weingarten and National Education Association President Becky Pringle shortly before the guidance came out.

One shows Weingarten tipping off Walensky about a pending report that the guidance would recommend in-person lessons regardless of COVID community transmission, "at odds" with their conversations.

A former chief operating officer and chief of staff in the Obama administration's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Cohen didn't sound like a COVID hawk in the pandemic's early months, even when cases in North Carolina jumped that summer. 

"Schools have not played a significant role" in transmission, perhaps because children are less likely to catch and spread the virus, Cohen told the Associated Press in July 2020, when Gov. Roy Cooper (D) delayed issuing reopening guidance for that fall. She emphasized that children face "minimal health consequences" from infection, in the wire service's paraphrase.

Yet North Carolina ranked in the bottom half of states providing in-person instruction in the 2020-2021 academic year, behind even New York, on Burbio's school opening tracker.

When one school district eased up on lengthy quarantines for "close contacts" of students who tested positive for COVID the next school year, Cohen become more strident. 

Citing "high rates of … community transmission" rather than in-school spread, Cohen warned Union County Public Schools Sept. 15, 2021 that "legal action may be required" if it didn't reinstate at least 10 days' quarantine for asymptomatic students or seven days for those who also test negative.

Two days earlier the school district cited contradictory orders from its local health director, who first issued "verbal direction" for a two-week quarantine, then claimed the district was "not under a directive to use a specific quarantine period."

Its Board of Education said that meant it had "no authority" to require students or staff who aren't showing symptoms "to stay at home."

The two-week quarantines caused "significant hardship" for students, "an overwhelming majority of [whom] never developed symptoms," while those who were infected could still transmit out of school, the board said. The quarantines also harmed parents who must "miss work or find other childcare alternatives," the board said, deeming school "the safest place for children to be." 

Cohen responded by accusing the district of not only violating state law but threatening children, who "now have the highest rate of cases among every age group for the first time in the pandemic in our state," with Union County the third highest. She conspicuously failed to mention hospitalization figures or her earlier assurances that children face low risk from COVID.

The "StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit" provides for close-contact quarantine exemptions, including those who are "fully vaccinated" or wear masks "consistently and appropriately" after exposure, Cohen wrote. 

She claimed "robust data … demonstrates the effectiveness of face masks," without citing any, and earlier recommended that districts force even vaccinated K-8 students to mask as a condition of in-person learning. The longest-running scientific review of high-quality mask research recently concluded they make "little to no difference."

Former World Bank analyst Anthony LaMesa, who closely tracks America's COVID response with that of other countries, noted that Cohen's approach that fall was at odds with much of Europe on masking and northern Europe on quarantines, which more closely resembled Florida.

Cohen kept recommending masks for "everyone" seven months after the CDC changed its guidance to only recommend masking for people who were not fully vaccinated, former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson noted, calling Cohen "the worst possible person" to succeed Walensky.

Cohen didn't mention reviewing evidence before making decisions when asked about "state-to-state relations" at a Duke business school event in May 2022, several months after she left the job for Aledade.

She heavily relied on "personal relationships" with peers in other states with the same authority, especially her Massachusetts then-counterpart Marylou Sudders, Cohen said. 

"When she was like, are you going to let them have professional football, I was like 'nope,' and she was like, 'neither are we' … or I'd be like 'so when are you going to think about lightening up on masks,' they were like 'next Monday,' so I'm like 'ok, next Monday,'" Cohen said. She described it as "a coordination of timing."

Cohen and Gov. Cooper sent county managers "sample ordinance[s]" in October 2020, asking them to cut off alcohol sales in their jurisdiction two hours earlier as a COVID mitigation measure. Officials told WBT News this was seen as a threat to impose a statewide 9 p.m. cutoff.

"Cohen didn’t reveal the science and/or data on COVID being more contagious after 9 p.m.," James Bovard, a fellow with the anti-mandate Brownstone Institute, deadpanned in a New York Post column Sunday.

Aledade, Cohen's current employer, did not respond to Just the News queries to confirm her pending appointment and respond to criticism of her record on COVID policies.