The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has seen its pandemic response politicized and undermined over the past year, but a new director appointed by the Biden administration aims to restore the battered agency to its world-class standing.
“They have been muzzled,” Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said in a recent interview. “Science hasn’t been heard. This top-tier, world-renowned agency hasn’t really been appreciated over the last four years, and really over the last year. I have to fix that.”1
Before taking the critical post during the high tide of an epidemic, Walensky was an infectious diseases physician at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The good news in my mind is there has not been a mass exodus of talent,” she said. “The talent is still there. I need to make sure that those voices get heard again, and that I am leading with the trust that the science is actually conveyed. It is not just the good news that you are going to hear.”
In addition to improving collaboration and communication within, Walensky wants to raise the profile of the agency and communicate directly with the public.
“I have to make sure that we are communicating to the American people,” she said. “I have done numerous media appearances where I hear people say ‘This is the first time we have heard from the CDC director.’ I want to be able to explain in layman’s terms what the science shows when guidelines change — not just me, but [CDC] subject matter experts who can convey that.”
Although there have been warning signs like the Ebola outbreak and the H1N1 flu pandemic, the public health system remained vulnerable to the emergence of COVID-19. “Part of the challenge with COVID is that we had a frail public health infrastructure at the start,” she said. “We need to fix our public health infrastructure, and we need resources to do it. One of my challenges is make sure that Congress knows and understands that we are in this because we have had many public health scares in the last few years, and we didn’t fix our public health infrastructure.”
Many aspects of the CDC’s normal mission have been sidetracked and deferred by the pandemic in 2020. “The CDC does a lot of work in public health in times when there are not pandemics,” Walensky said. “We are going to see a lot of collateral damage from last year in terms of hard-won gains that have been lost — child vaccination, hypertension, HIV, mental health challenges, climate change impact on health.”
Leading the CDC during the worst pandemic in a century is not something to undertake lightly. Walensky told her family she viewed it as responding to a medical emergency in a clinical setting.
“I got called during a code,” she said. “When you are called during a code, you have to be there to help. I think my kids are really proud. They know that they may not see as much of me, but this is something that I have to do.”
- JAMA Network. Coronavirus update with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. Conversations with Dr. Bauchner. Jan. 19, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSopzX_uZ5Q&ab_channel=JAMANetwork