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.
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.
“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.