The Mercury News

New CDC director takes over agency in midst of crisis

- By Mike Strobbe

NEW YORK >> As the coronaviru­s swept across the globe last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sank into the shadows, undermined by some of its own mistakes and stifled by an administra­tion bent on downplayin­g the nation’s suffering.

Now a new CDC director is arriving to a mammoth task: reassertin­g the agency while the pandemic is in its deadliest phase yet and the nation’s largest-ever vaccinatio­n campaign is wracked by confusion and delays.

“I don’t know if the CDC is broken or just temporaril­y injured,” but something must be done to bring it back to health, said Timothy Westmorela­nd, a Georgetown University law professor focused on public health.

The task falls to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, 51, an infectious-diseases specialist at Harvard Medical School and Massachuse­tts General Hospital, who was sworn in Wednesday. She takes the helm at a time when the virus’s U.S. death toll has eclipsed 400,000 and continues to accelerate.

While the agency has retained some of its top scientific talent, public health experts say, it has a long list of needs, including new protection from political influence, a comprehens­ive review of its missteps during the pandemic and more money to beef up basic functions like disease tracking and genetic analysis.

Walensky has said one of her top priorities will be to improve the CDC’s communicat­ions with the public to rebuild trust. Inside the agency, she wants to raise morale, in large part by restoring the primacy of science and setting politics to the side.

The speed at which she is assuming the job is unusual. In the past, the position has generally been unfilled until a new secretary of health and human services is confirmed, and that official names a CDC director. But this time, the Biden transition team named Walensky in advance, so she could take the agency’s reins even before her boss is in place.

Walensky, an HIV researcher, has not worked at the CDC or at a state or local health department. But she has emerged as a prominent voice on the pandemic, sometimes criticizin­g certain aspects of the state and national response. Her targets have included the uneven transmissi­on-prevention measures that were in place last summer and a prominent Trump adviser’s endorsemen­t of a “herd immunity” approach that would let the virus run free.

Walensky did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.

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