The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, announced Friday that she will leave the agency at the end of June.
“I took on this role with the goal of leaving behind the dark days of the pandemic and moving CDC — and public health — forward into a much better and more trusted place,” Walensky said in an email to her staff, a copy of which was obtained by STAT. “At this pivotal moment for our nation and public health, having worked together to accomplish so much over the last two-plus years, it is with mixed emotions that I will step down as CDC Director on June 30, 2023.”
President Biden praised Walensky for her leadership of the agency, which has been badly battered for its handling of the pandemic.
“As director of the CDC, she led a complex organization on the frontlines of a once-in-a-generation pandemic with honesty and integrity,” Biden said in a statement. “She marshaled our finest scientists and public health experts to turn the tide on the urgent crises we’ve faced.”
“Dr. Walensky leaves CDC a stronger institution, better positioned to confront health threats and protect Americans. We have all benefited from her service and dedication to public health, and I wish her the best in her next chapter.”
A source told STAT that the decision to leave was Walensky’s, and that the White House would have preferred that she remain in the job.
Earlier in her tenure, Walensky — who struggled with the communications side of the job — faced criticism within the administration. She publicly acknowledged her limitations as a communicator, revealing that she was undergoing communications training. Rumors that she was going to be replaced quieted down.
The fact that she did not move to Atlanta, where the CDC is headquartered, however, was a sore spot with some of the agency’s staff.
In her time as CDC director, Walensky has tried to change the culture of the agency, pushing it to release data more quickly. Too often, she argued, scientists were holding onto information the public needed to know as they went through the process of releasing the data in scientific articles.
“For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Walensky said in an email sent to the agency’s 11,000-person staff last August. “My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness.”
She has also lobbied hard for authorities that would allow the agency to collect more and better data from states, tribes, and territories — a problem that has hamstrung the CDC at many points during the pandemic.
Biden announced Walensky — an HIV expert who was previously chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital — was his choice to lead the CDC in December 2020, before he took office. Unlike the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration or the director of the National Institutes of Health, the position of CDC director did not require Senate confirmation at that time.
A provision included in the omnibus Prevent Pandemics Act that passed Congress in December will change that, starting in 2024. That presumably means that Walensky’s successor will also be able to take office without going through a Senate confirmation process.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Walensky was not trained in public health.