Georgia’s public health commissioner, an OB-GYN and two-time Republican candidate for Congress, has been named the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald will replace Dr. Tom Frieden, who served as CDC director for eight years before stepping down in January.
Fitzgerald joined the Atlanta-based agency effective Friday, its acting director, Dr. Anne Schuchat, told CDC staff in an email. Schuchat, a CDC veteran and principal deputy director under Frieden, assured staff she will work closely with Fitzgerald to affect a smooth transition.
Fitzgerald, who is 70, was also named administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is also based in Atlanta. That agency oversees work on the public health effects of hazardous substances in the environment.
Fitzgerald has practiced medicine for about three decades in Carrollton, a city west of Atlanta. But she does not appear to have a record of having conducted scientific research, a major function of the agency she has been nominated to lead.
In announcing the appointment, Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, said Fitzgerald “has a deep appreciation and understanding of medicine, public health, policy and leadership — all qualities that will prove vital as she leads the CDC.”
Her predecessor, Frieden, said Fitzgerald’s time at the helm of the Georgia public health commission will be important experience on which she can draw. He noted that while she was there, the commission did strong work in the area of family planning.
“It’s good that she has experience running a public health agency,” said Frieden, who was New York City’s health commissioner before taking the helm of the CDC.
“If she’s willing to listen to the staff and learn from the staff and then to understand that a large part of her role is to support them, yes, she can be very successful,” he said, noting it will be critical for Fitzgerald to protect the embattled agency’s budget.
In particular, staff of the CDC will be watching to see if Fitzgerald safeguards the CDC’s international work. The CDC is the preeminent global disease detection and control agency, and has outposts in a number of countries overseas. There is deep concern at the agency that the new administration’s views on placing American interests first may lead to a retrenchment of the CDC’s work abroad.
Over the years the CDC has often been the first place other countries turn for help controlling new diseases; its scientists, for instance, were the ones who were able to confirm a 1976 outbreak in Zaire — now Democratic Republic of Congo — was caused by a never-before seen virus the world now calls Ebola.
As other countries have built up their own disease surveillance capacity, they often use the name CDC — a testament to the reputation of the agency and the role it plays. Frieden told STAT that when he traveled abroad as CDC director, the question he most commonly heard was: How can we create our own CDC?
The selection of Fitzgerald — an ally of former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich — may generate some controversy.
In 2014, during the West African Ebola crisis, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal stated publicly that water destroys Ebola viruses — it does not — and attributed the notion to Fitzgerald.
And she has been involved in partisan politics, having run twice for the Republican nomination for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District in the early 1990s.
Fitzgerald did not win the nomination either time.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution article analyzing Fitzgerald’s defeat in 1994 noted she faced attacks from anti-abortion activists; in the lead-up to the vote, some distributed flyers in church parking lots proclaiming that she had performed abortions.
Fitzgerald publicly denied the claim in a debate with Republican Bob Barr, who went on to win the nomination and the district.
“I’ve spent my entire life trying to help infertile couples,” Fitzgerald said. “In the entire time I’ve been a licensed physician, I’ve never performed an abortion.”
However, Fitzgerald’s position on abortion appeared to be more nuanced than anti-abortion forces in Georgia could abide. She was on the record in the early 1990s as saying while she opposed federal funding of abortion and favored some restrictions, the final decision should be left to a woman and her doctor.
Fitzgerald has also publicly endorsed vaccinations, which will hearten the public health community. Trump’s position on vaccines — he has stated that children receive too many vaccines too quickly in early childhood — has been a source of major concern in public health circles.
“Vaccination is our best protection against measles and a host of other infectious diseases,” Fitzgerald, by then Georgia’s public health commissioner, wrote in 2015 in a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Fitzgerald was named state commissioner of public health in 2011.
She is a former major in the U.S. Air Force, and a one-time president of the Georgia OB-GYN Society. During Gingrich’s tenure as House speaker, she served as one of his health care policy advisers.
Fitzgerald received a Bachelor of Science degree from Georgia State University in 1972 and was awarded a medical degree from Emory University in 1977.