Dr. Leana Wen was a vocal proponent of lockdowns, including mandatory masking of children in schools. Now she advocates choice. What happened?
By Jeremy R. Hammond
Among the more notorious advocates of authoritarian lockdown measures during the COVID‑19 pandemic has been Dr. Leana Wen, a medical doctor, former Baltimore health commissioner, contributing writer for the Washington Post, and CNN medical analyst.
She gained notoriety for explicitly advocating social punishment of unvaccinated people as a means of coercing them into getting vaccinated, even if they chose to remain unvaccinated because they had already acquired superior natural immunity. She based her position at the time on the false claim that the fCOVID‑19 vaccines would stop transmission of SARS‑CoV‑2, the coronavirus that causes the disease.
I discussed this in my article “The Official Ignorance of Natural Immunity to SARS‑CoV‑2”, which was the second installment of my multi-part series exposing how the “public health” and mainstream media establishments were systematically deceiving the public about natural immunity versus the effectiveness of vaccines to manufacture consent for the policy goal of achieving high vaccine uptake.
In that article, I documented how on March 12, 2021, Leana Wen declared on CNN that, for people who hadn’t been persuaded yet to accept vaccination, “we need to make it clear to them that the vaccine is the ticket back to pre-pandemic life.”
Dr. Wen expressed deep concern that, with states already having begun to drop lockdown measures and open society up, “the window to do that”—meaning to coerce people into getting vaccinated—“is really narrowing”. As she elucidated (emphasis added):
We have a very narrow window to tie reopening policy to vaccination status. Because otherwise if everything is reopened, then what’s the carrot going to be? How are we going to incentivize people to actually get the vaccine? So that’s why I think the CDC and the Biden administration needs to come out a lot bolder and say, “If you are vaccinated, you can do all these things. Here are all the freedoms that you have.” Because otherwise, people are going to go out and enjoy these freedoms anyway.
You can watch her advocate the systematic violation of individuals’ right to informed consent in the video embedded in this tweet of hers:
The premise of her argument that people should be coerced into getting vaccinated was the falsehood that the vaccines would prevent transmission. This misinformation was also propagated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As I also document in that article, the message that the vaccines would prevent transmission was implicitly communicated to the public with the CDC’s declaration on March 8, 2021, that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask or maintain social distancing in public or in private gatherings.
The message that natural immunity offered no protection against infection and transmission was also implicitly communicated by the CDC’s refusal to inform people who had already recovered from SARS‑CoV‑2 infection that they had acquired immunity and therefore were at far lower risk of becoming infected and transmitting the virus.
A New York Times headline celebrated the discrimination against unvaccinated people, including the naturally immune, with the headline “Let the Unmasked Gatherings Begin”! The article quoted CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky telling the public that “a growing body of evidence” told us that fully vaccinated people could resume normal activities “at low risk to themselves”, saying nothing about people who’d already recovered from infection being able to do so.
Dr. Wen’s comment on March 12 advocating coerced vaccination was part of a criticism of the CDC’s policy update telling fully vaccinated people they no longer had to wear masks. Her concern was that unvaccinated people—including the naturally immune—would just act like they were vaccinated to be able to participate normally in society.
The CDC expanded its discrimination against other unvaccinated people on May 13, telling the public that once you’ve been fully vaccinated, “you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.” The message to unvaccinated people with natural immunity, by contrast, was to “find a vaccine.”
In a Twitter post announcing the updated policy guidance, Walensky stated, “If you are fully vaccinated against #COVID19, you can now start doing things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. You can participate in indoor and outdoor activities – large or small – without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”
President Joseph R. Biden also took to Twitter to threaten, “The rule is now simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do. The choice is yours.” That order went for naturally immune people, too.
Neither the CDC nor Biden were extreme enough in their efforts to systematically violate the right of individuals to informed consent with policy measures to coerce people into getting vaccinated, in Dr. Wen’s view.
The extremity of Leana Wen’s authoritarian position extended to her views on the masking of children.
On Twitter on May 28, 2021, Wen advocated mandatory masking of unvaccinated children—including those with natural immunity—at summer camp.
The same day, she criticized the governor of Georgia for prohibiting schools from making mask use mandatory for children.
On June 14, she made a display of her son Eli “practicing his mask-wearing” at home in anticipation of his first day of summer camp. (Note in the photo that the mask is not properly fitted, leaving large gaps at the side.)
On July 9, she praised the CDC for recommending mandatory masking of unvaccinated children. “I am really glad that they have said that masks are going to be required for unvaccinated children over the age of two”, she said, describing mandatory masking as “essential”.
But then, within four months since telling fully vaccinated people that they no longer needed to wear a mask, the CDC’s own data established that outbreaks could occur among fully vaccinated people. By the end of July 2021, it was already apparent that the emerging data were falsifying the repeatedly communicated message from the entire “public health” establishment that the vaccines would provide durable protection against infection and transmission.
That month, CDC researchers learned of a large outbreak in Massachusetts in which 74 percent of COVID‑19 cases were in fully vaccinated people. Furthermore, they observed that the amount of virus shed by vaccinated people was just as high as with the unvaccinated, implying equal contagiousness.
This finding prompted to CDC at the end of July to flip-flop and return to advising fully vaccinated people to start masking up once again.
Leana Wen took to the media to criticize the CDC again, this time for conveying what she felt was a confusing message by reversing its guidance. In a Washington Post article on July 29, Wen acknowledged the CDC’s “research showing that vaccinated people who become infected with the delta variant carry a similar amount of virus to those who are unvaccinated and infected”, which “suggests that vaccinated people could be carriers and therefore capable of spreading the coronavirus to family members”.
Her concern nevertheless remained “that the unvaccinated could be a danger” to her and her family. By her dizzying reasoning, it was only because of “unvaccinated” people that she, a fully vaccinated person, “could contract the coronavirus and bring it back to my vulnerable family members.”
On Twitter, she summarized her criticism by describing the CDC’s reversal as “confusing” and “muddled”, curiously arguing despite her acknowledgment of the data showing that fully vaccinated people were spreading the virus that indoor mask mandates were needed “not because the vaccinated are suddenly a problem, but because we don’t trust the unvaccinated to voluntarily do the right thing.”
She did not explain how it could logically be the case that only unvaccinated people posed that risk to her given that vaccination did not work to stop transmission.
While acknowledgment of cellular immunity, as distinct from the humoral immunity provided by antibodies, had been practically nonexistent in the public messaging of the “public health” establishment until then, suddenly, in August 2021, the CDC and other “authorities” appeared to discover that, even if someone’s antibody levels waned and failed to protect them against infection, they would still be protected against severe disease and death due to cellular immune responses!
Curiously, that never crossed their mind when the public message was that natural immunity must be weak and short-lived since antibodies were observed to rapidly wane from peak levels seen post-infection.
It also never crossed their minds to inform the public that this rapid decline is normal and expected after recovery from acute infection. As I cover in great detail in my series on the superiority of natural immunity, the claims of short-lived natural immunity, propagated by the CDC and others, were falsified by studies demonstrating natural immunity to be robust, broad, and durable, with the induction of immunological memory capable of rapidly churning out antibodies as necessary in the event of reexposure.
The public messaging shifted from telling everyone to get vaccinated as a selfless social duty to protect others by preventing the spread of the virus to telling everyone get vaccinated to protect themselves against severe disease.
On CNN on August, 2021, Walensky reassured that the data continued to indicate that being fully vaccinated was protective against severe illness and death from the then-predominant Delta variant of SARS‑CoV‑2. “But what they can’t do anymore”, Walensky said, “is prevent transmission.”
That was disingenuous. By saying “anymore”, she was implying that the loss of sterilizing immunity, meaning protection against infection and transmission (as distinct from protection against disease), was a function of the newly predominant Delta variant, but it was primarily a function of the vaccine and their inability to induce durable sterilizing immunity regardless of the variant.
Meanwhile, on major social media platforms, it remained prohibited to tell the truth. For example, Google continued its policy whereby YouTube videos saying that “that COVID-19 vaccines are not effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19” were subject to deletion and the users to deplatforming. (YouTube quietly dropped this and other prohibitions of truth-telling earlier this year.)
Leana Wen continued her advocacy of masking of children.
On August 10, she quoted a New York Times article saying, “If we send children to school without masks, we increased their risk of acquiring #covid19. Some could suffer illness or die. If we close schools, millions of children will suffer learning loss….” Her comment was, “Hence the solution: Keep schools open, with masking.”
Six days later, she argued in favor of masking children in “all schools in this country”. On August 16, she argued on Twitter that “Masking in schools reduces #covid19 transmission” and suggested that parents whose children go to schools that “do not require masking” should organize to make mask-wearing “the norm”.
On August 21, expressing agreement with a comment by former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden, she said that it was “Exactly right” to equate being “anti-mask”—a euphemism inclusive of anyone opposed to mandatory masking of children—with being “anti-science” and “basically pro-virus and anti-child.”
Fast forward to March 2020. By this time, Leana Wen had surrendered to the reality that the vaccines do not prevent transmission and that people needed to start getting back to living their lives normally anyway. On March 22, she said on Twitter, “For those who don’t agree that the vaccinated can return to pre-pandemic normal, I ask: What should we all do? Perpetual masking? Forever not dining out, avoiding large weddings & indoor gatherings, etc? Virtually everything has risk, and zero covid is not a viable strategy.”
Now, recall that the CDC had been recommending that people wear cloth or surgical facemasks to protect themselves and others. The CDC had specifically told people not to wear an N95 mask in order to preserve them for health care workers. The CDC only stopped recommending the use of cloth masks in favor of surgical or N95 masks in January 2022.
Leana Wen bluntly alluded to the rationale for this change in a tweet on March 23, stating that “simple cloth masks are little more than facial decorations” and “have no place against extremely contagious variants”. People should “ideally” opt for an N95, instead, she suggested.
This was not because “the science” on masks had “changed”. It was what many people were saying from the start. It was what many people on social media were banned for saying, just as many were banned for pointing out that the claims by “public health” officials that the vaccines would provide durable protection and stop transmission were unsupported by scientific evidence. To oppose the CDC’s recommendation for children in school to wear a cloth mask was “anti-science”, “pro-virus”, and “anti-child”, Wen had previously suggested.
Now she was admitting that simple cloth masks do practically nothing to protect the wearer or stop the wearer from spreading the virus to others. Her evolving position on mask use didn’t stop there. She also came around to acknowledging another truth that opponents of the policies she advocated were banned from saying on social media: that forcing children to wear masks can harm them.
On August 23, the Washington Post published an article by Wen under the headline: “I’m a doctor. Here’s why my kids won’t wear masks this school year.”
She stated, “It became clear that the goal I’d hoped for—containment of covid‑19—was not reachable. This coronavirus is here to stay.” Her “benefit-risk calculus” for her own children had changed. “I was willing to limit my children’s activities for a year or two but not for their entire childhood.”
That it was a mistake to singularly focus on avoiding COVID‑19 is precisely what many people censored on social media had been saying when speaking out in opposition to the policies that Leana Wen had previously advocated. It was the central message of The Great Barrington Declaration, whose scientifically credentialed authors experienced censorship for speaking out against the authoritarian lockdowns.
Wen listed a number of ostensible rationalizations for her change of view on the masking of her own children. It was the Omicron variant now, which was more contagious and caused milder illness. Most people, including most children, had already been infected with the coronavirus. Her children were now fully vaccinated.
Now that they are full vaccinated, we do not plan to limit their activities, and—like most parents in their school—will not be masking them in the classroom.
I accept the risk that my kids will probably contract covid‑19 this school year, just as they could contract the flu, respiratory syncytial virus and other contagious diseases.
Then she disclosed another reason why she would no longer be forcing her own kids to wear a mask:
Masking has harmed our son’s language development, and limiting both kids’ extracurriculars and social interactions would negatively affect their childhood and hinder my and my husband’s ability to work.
While she had previously dismissed anyone who opposed the policies she advocated as not just “anti-mask” but “anti-science” and “anti-child”, she added: “To be clear, my family’s decision not to mask our kids should not be mislabeled as being antimask; we would never stigmatize other parents and caregivers for the difficult choices they must make.”
That, of course, was a bald-faced lie. She had in fact stigmatized other parents for the difficult choices they must make about what is in the best interests of their children’s health, calling them insulting names and advocating policies specifically to penalize them for making choices that were different from hers.
She closed by saying that her changed approach “reflects the evolution of the pandemic and the acknowledgment that avoiding covid-19 cannot be the singular metric of people’s overall health and well-being.”
That it was a mistake to singularly focus on avoiding COVID‑19 is precisely what many people censored on social media had been saying when speaking out in opposition to the policies that Leana Wen had previously advocated.
Yet here now we have this prominent advocate of mandatory masking of children in schools disclosing that her own child had been harmed from having to wear a mask all the time.
She disclosed additional details on Twitter. “In my case,” she shared on August 24, “I have the ‘before’ and ‘after’. After my son’s school went mask optional, there was a profound change in speech and social development after he (& nearly all of his class, including his teacher) took off masks.”
(Note that she observed this in reply to a comment criticizing that personal anecdotes do not establish causation, with the specific example cited of the belief of many parents that vaccination is what caused their child’s autism. Wen’s appropriate point about gaslighting equally applies to parents of autistic children who likewise saw the “before” and “after”.)
She added, “Yes, this is anecdote. But it feels like gaslighting when others are telling parents that we don’t know what’s causing problems for our kids, when we have seen it for ourselves. Recognizing that masks COULD have harm for SOME is all that a lot of parents are asking for.”
(Following up on the point about autism, note that then CDC Director Julie Gerberding admitted on CNN in 2008 that vaccination can cause encephalopathy manifesting as symptoms of autism. She was referring to the case of a girl named Hannah Poling, who had been developing normally but regressed into diagnosed autism after receiving nine vaccine doses at once at nineteen months of age. The long-time director of the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office, Dr. Frank DeStefano, acknowledged in an interview in 2018 that “it’s a possibility” that vaccines could cause autism in genetically susceptible individuals, but that the problem is it’s “hard to predict who those children might be”, and research designed to identify underlying cofactors that place certain children at greater risk of vaccine injury is “very difficult to do”.)
The same day, former US Surgeon General Jerome Adams took to Twitter to deny that masks can harm children. “I’m saying, after 2 years and millions masked, show me the data that says it delays speech. Because I can’t find it.”
Of course, it is easy to say that evidence does not exist that forcing masks on children causes harm when policymakers forced masks on children in the absence of studies to determine the benefits versus risks.
In response to Adams, Wen retorted, “Those data don’t exist yet. Neither do data that school mask mandates (especially w/cloth masks), in a time of omicron, saves lives. That’s why where the US has landed—allowing individual choice—is sensible. Allow parents to decide what’s best for their kids, masks on or not.”
Of course, that forcing children to wear masks could harm some of them was precisely what many people she had previously dismissed as “anti-child” were saying from the start. It is among the concerns that social media companies prohibited people from expressing, citing the policy recommendations that Leana Wen advocated as the basis for their censorship.
To cite YouTube again as an example, the Google-owned video platform had long prohibited “Claims that wearing a mask is dangerous or causes negative physical health effects.” This is among the prohibitions that YouTube has since dropped from its community guidelines.
It is an encouraging sign that an extremist like Dr. Wen can come around to the view that risk-benefit assessments need to be individualized and mask use voluntary, and it is good to see her confronting Jerome Adams for trying to gaslight parents into disbelieving their own experiences and empirical evidence. It is just sad that her son, by her own account, became harmed by the very intervention she had so fervently argued should be forced upon school children.
An apology from Wen to other parents of children harmed by the policies she advocated has not, to my knowledge, been forthcoming. Her son has my sympathies.