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When Rochelle Walensky, head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, walks into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on her first day, she will be taking over the famed public health agency at a time when its reputation has been battered and the morale of its staff is at a low ebb.

Early missteps in the pandemic have tarnished the CDC’s image. A flawed test designed by CDC scientists did not work in the hands of state and local public health labs, allowing the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, to spread undetected and establish itself in the U.S.

Later, an administration that was keen to play down the emerging pandemic sidelined the CDC’s experts, favoring chaotic and sometimes factually inaccurate briefings from the White House as a means of informing the American public about the spreading virus and the threat it posed.

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In previous health crises, daily briefings from the CDC have been the norm; in the Covid pandemic, the worst disease outbreak the country has faced in more than a century, weeks and even months have passed without the public hearing from the agency’s top scientists.

That’s likely to change: Walensky, who has been tapped by President-elect Biden to lead the agency, has come to national prominence during the pandemic through frequent appearances on cable TV. She is a highly skilled, media-savvy communicator, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy.

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“She’s a leader with a very clear and compelling voice around the Covid-19 issue,” said Osterholm, adding that he has “every reason to believe that that voice will carry through on all the topics of public health that CDC has to deal with.”

Like her predecessor, Robert Redfield, who has been in the post since March 2018, Walensky is an HIV researcher and clinician. She is not an expert in respiratory diseases or coronaviruses like SARS-2.

But the incoming administration is believed to have been seeking a CDC director who could broadly and effectively communicate with the public about the challenges the pandemic poses. Osterholm thinks Walensky has those skills.

“What we need right now more than anything is a visible and compelling leader at CDC who can reengage Americans in seeing CDC the critical public health agency that it is,” he said.

The CDC director is not a position that requires Senate approval, so Walensky will take over the agency when the Biden administration takes office on Jan. 20.

“I’m honored to be called to lead the brilliant team at the CDC,” Walensky said on Twitter on Monday. “We are ready to combat this virus with science and facts.”

The last sentence of that tweet from Walensky — who did not respond to a request for comment — set out a promise and a mission. And the “we” would not surprise people who have worked with Walensky and describe her as a strong leader who brings people together.

“None of us who have worked with her or for her have any doubt that she has exactly the right type of administrative skills to run an organization of talented people who will benefit from her direction,” said Ken Freedberg, director of the medical practice evaluation center at Mass. General, who was an early mentor to Walensky when she began her career in HIV medicine.

“From the beginning it was clear that she was extremely talented, extremely bright, unbelievably productive and all of the right stuff to be a great researcher, clinician, colleague,” he said.

Julia Marcus, an HIV epidemiologist in the Harvard School of Public Health, professed to feeling “euphoria” at the news that Walensky, with whom Marcus has worked at times, had been chosen to lead the CDC.

“My phone blew up when the news hit, because everybody was just so overjoyed,” she said.

“She’s a fierce and fearless advocate,” Marcus added. “I think the combination of those qualities — in addition to her incredible infectious disease expertise and experience — makes her a great pick for restoring the CDC at a time when we need it most.”

Jen Kates, director for global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, has known Walensky for years, through their work on HIV. Kates described Walensky as “a true scholar in the field of infectious diseases broadly and HIV specifically, as well as a practicing physician and someone who is full of compassion.”

“These are all qualities which will serve her, and our nation, well in leading CDC,” Kates said in an email.

Marc Lipsitch has also known Walensky for years; in fact, she was in the first class he taught at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in 2000.

He said the next director of the agency is bound to face an enormous challenge, repairing the damage the CDC has sustained during the Trump administration, most especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s a horrifically hard job and no one would have experience in every piece of what’s important to this job,” he said. “But I think she’s someone who inspires confidence and who has the competence to back it up.”

Early in her career Walensky worked with Freedberg on a program called Cost Effectiveness of Preventing AIDS Complications, or CEPAC, which used modeling to figure out how best to treat HIV patients. They also worked with low-income countries — South Africa, Mozambique, India, Côte d’Ivoire — to help HIV clinicians there make the best choices for their patients given local resources.

Freedberg believes his former mentee is stepping into a crucial job, at a crucial time, with the imminent rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.

“Given the vaccine arrival and hesitancy and where we are, there may not be a more important position right now in the country, in this administration, over the next six months than the one that she’s stepping into,” he said.

  • If people don’t start acknowledging the CDC and most of the government health apparatus is inept, we are going to get worse.

    Yes Trump handled Covid poorly, but he just threw the dirt on the failed CDC’s coffin. They botched ppe reserves, mask guidance and testing before he got involved.

  • Hi Helen,

    Great article! However, you forgot to properly name the new head of the CDC. It’s DOCTOR Rochelle Walensky 🙂

    Thanks!

    Sincerely,

    A feminist that believes women deserve more respect, especially in print.

  • “She is a highly skilled, media-savvy communicator”

    Yes, this is the most important skill, since an agency’s image is everything. It doesn’t take much muckraking to discover CDC is a cesspool of incompetence underneath their alleged greatness. It’s amazing what a good Public Relations program can do.

    The CDC’s myalgic encephalomyelitis (the original name for “chronic fatigue syndrome”) research program is a prime example of incompetence. They have been spinning their wheels for decades and have nothing to show for it. Actually worse than nothing: their prior policy of promoting exercise and therapy (magic CBT of course) has harmed uncounted thousands around the world.

    Even today they play kick-the-can while devastated ME sufferers struggle through each day. For example, consider the “Multi-site Clinical Assessment of CFS” project started in 2011. No that year is not a typo. After a decade of doing no one knows exactly what, they have published one protocol paper. That’s it. There’s no timeline of when to expect actual results. There is little expectation of useful results, so no one much cares.

    Until recently no one outside the patient and research communities were much concerned about a few million US residents struck down by ME. It was pretty easy to shout down the feeble voices of people stuck in bed or at home. A CDC/NIH campaign to change the name to “CFS” and claim it is a mental illness of people afraid to exercise did the trick. Anybody who objected to the “mental illness” label is obviously “against psychiatry” and can be ignored.

    But now it matters. Long Covid looks more and more like ME every day, at least for a subset. Sure would be handy to know what causes illness like ME. That would give Long Covid researchers a head start. Be even better if there were some treatments to try.

    Gee, maybe the US should organize a department to investigate stuff like ME, corona virus, and Long Covid. They could call it “Centers for Disease Control”.

    • Let’s don’t forget to get into the past fiasco. How did we we end up with the incompetent Redfield leafing up the cesspool and who were involved with appointing him to head it up? Can someone (preferably either an insider or a superb investigative journalist with requisite historical knowkedge and connections) shed some light and insight? Was he a chummy if Trump, or Trump’s supporter, or contributed some money big time?

    • Indeed, I wonder if “infectious diseases” can be considered public enemy #1 in this dawning era of novel biologics?

      Consider the wise words spoken in 2017 re: IRAE sequelae in onco-immunology
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfYpkA4AmFo
      from Cleveland Clinic R.J. Fasenmyer Center for Clinical Immunology
      @20 mins Characteristic ‘covid-toes’ immuno-deficiency
      (before SARS-COV-2 was even a thing)
      @31 mins Clinical spectrum of immune related adverse events with many
      notable similarities to ME (neuropathies and myopathies associated with auto-immune injury as in Guillain Barre syndrome) of unknown etiology, not nosocomial but rather iatrogenic effect, ie not communicated unintentionally within healthcare institutions but as intentional yet unpredictable consequence of the clinical intervention itself.

      Totally different skill set needed to HIV epidemiology or international philanthropy.
      More of a turf war with FDA/HHS competences: vaccine injury legislation’s merely a legal remedy to a clinical problem to indemnify the commercial parties for their poor approach to designing novel medicines.

      Can a physician at the CDC make any policy inroads to address the abject failure of the US healthcare-financialization system to get value for money for the American people, afflicted with this ever-expanding pool of poorly-studied conditions?

      In the 60 years I’ve suffered seasonal allergies I was never told by any GP or allergist that post-nasal drip could eventually constrict my esophagus via scarring from eosoniphilic infiltration of natural immune response to chronic irritation, despite $$$ on inhaled steroids Rx every month, resulting in chronic GERD as stomach herniated through diaphragm as my esophagus shortened and thickened. None of the so-called specialists speak to each other. My pulmonologist broke the bad news after an ICU stay from a severe asthma attack, lifestyle and diet changes the only way to calm an overactive immune system, reactivated by the potent adjuvants in annual flu shots recommended for such comorbidity. Take an self-adjuvanting mRNA jab? Not on your life… not until at least 24 months of data on whol-body immunological sequelae have been published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal.

    • John Chu,

      Redfield and Birx are both close associates of Fauci. They all worked together during the AIDS fiasco. The current epidemic is the third (at least) fiasco Anthony Fauci has helped to create. In addition to mucking up AIDS and Covid, he helped destroy the NIH’s ME research program, which is still a mess. I realize it’s hard to tell the players without a scorecard, but it’s notable that CDC and NIH have separate ME research programs, and they are both nearly useless.

      The NIH ME research program was moved from NIAID (Fauci’s institute for the past 50 years) to the Office of NIH Director in Oct 1999. CFS Advisory Committee meeting minutes from Sept 2003 includes this note:

      “Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director, met with the Dr. Harold Varmus, Director of NIH, and concluded that CFS was more complex and activities should be relocated from a single NIH institute.”

      Any close examination of US health agencies and the botched response to Covid needs to start with Fauci, the man who said as late as the end of February that the seasonal influenza was more of a threat than the novel corona virus. Oops.

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