The new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that morale at the agency suffered under the Trump administration, saying in an interview that “these bruises are going to take a long time to heal.”
Despite the battering the CDC has taken, both during the pandemic and in the chaotic three years of the Trump administration proceeding it, Rochelle Walensky said there had not been a large exodus of experts from the Atlanta-based agency.
“So that’s like an extraordinary gift,” she told STAT. “I don’t want to say nobody’s left, but I really haven’t lost much of the greatness that made CDC what it was or what it is.”
The agency saw its public and political stock fall markedly last year at a time when its experts would normally have been center stage. Instead, they largely ceded that role to political appointees in the Trump administration, which was keen to downplay the threat posed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and sidelined agency officials who could have served as experts skilled in public health communication. The early failure of a CDC-designed test for the virus also tarnished the CDC’s reputation.
Walensky, an HIV researcher and former head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, said she’s committed to doing the work necessary to help the agency recover, and has been meeting with senior leaders about how best to restore morale among the staff.
She said that a commitment to putting the science first, as basic as that sounds, would be a key part of her approach. Under the previous administration, President Trump and some of his appointees often pushed for outcomes they favored rather than drawing conclusions based on data — insisting, for example, on the value of hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 therapy when study after study disputed its efficacy.
“I know I have a lot of hard work ahead of me,” Walensky said. But “just understanding that I share their values with them and that I will stick up for those values, I think goes a really long way.”
Walensky said she’ll make sure the agency is represented in the rooms where decisions are made, and that it has a voice in those discussions.
Another key priority will be advancing health equity, she said. “I feel absolutely strongly about [it], as does this administration.”
Walensky takes over the agency a year into a brutal pandemic during which more than 27 million Americans have been infected and more than 466,000 have died. Life across the nation has been disrupted. While Covid vaccines have started to be administered, the pace of that process is slower than the public would wish. People are tired, dispirited, and they want their pre-Covid lives back.
Asked when a sense of normalcy might return, and what life will look like after the acute phase of the pandemic ends, Walensky said aspects of life might be changed for good — but that that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We were having this conversation at my own dinner table the other night and we were saying, do you remember how densely people packed on the T in the morning? Like, when do you think that’s going to happen?” she said, referring to Boston’s subway system. “Maybe we all don’t miss that. Maybe that was not such a good thing we should have been doing.”
Predicting what the SARS-2 virus will do is a tough task, because the virus has too often defied predictions, Walensky said.
“This virus has been humbling,” she said. “I’m pretty cautiously optimistic that we know a lot about this virus, that we know a lot about how we can prevent getting it, what we can do to mitigate. We have a vaccine that’s here in really record time. And so, I’m pretty optimistic, except that we have the threat of variants.”
“I don’t necessarily want to tell you when I’m going to go to the movies next,” she continued. “But I would say a lot of this is in the public’s control, right? I mean … people are relaxing [mitigation measures] because they’re seeing the rates come down and yet the case rates are still so extraordinarily high. And so, we really need to get them down way further.”
“It’s just, people are impatient.”