Five key moments from Walensky’s tenure at CDC

Five key moments from Walensky’s tenure at CDC

Rochelle Walensky, who has served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since the start of the Biden administration, announced Friday that she will leave the agency later this summer.

“I took on this role, at your request, 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 a statement.

Her departure will happen at the end of June.

The end of the declaration of a national public health emergency for COVID-19 is scheduled for next week, kicking off the transition out of the pandemic era and into the endemic stage. The global pandemic has defined much of Walensky’s time at the CDC, her handling of which garnered both praise and disapproval.

Here are five key moments from her time as CDC director.

Inheriting a pandemic

When Walensky assumed her role as CDC director in January 2021, the U.S was experiencing the highest surge in cases it had seen to that point in the outbreak. Coronavirus vaccines had only just recently become available, with doses reserved for at-risk groups, and readily available antivirals would not be authorized for almost an entire year.

Not only did she walk into a precarious pandemic situation, Walensky also had to contend with a public that had become wary of government messaging.

Former President Trump’s public disputes with his own health officials also eroded public trust in government guidance. Shortly before the 2020 election, a Pew Research survey found that a majority of people in the U.S. disapproved of Trump’s COVID-19 messaging.

Shortly before she began as CDC director, Walensky opined that the Trump administration had “muzzled” the agency and its scientists.

“They have been diminished. I think they’ve been muzzled. That science hasn’t been heard,” she said at the time. “This top-tier agency — world-renowned — hasn’t really been appreciated over the last four years, and really markedly over the last year, so I have to fix that.”

Responding to criticisms

Throughout 2022, the CDC faced widespread criticism for being unable to provide regular communication with health stakeholders. Criticisms even came from those who once held Walensky’s position.

Tom Frieden, who served as CDC director under former President Obama, said last year that the agency wasn’t doing enough to put expert faces at the front of the COVID-19 response.

“The fact is, there are dedicated scientists at CDC who are the world’s experts in a lot of these issues, and they need to be speaking directly to the public along with Dr. Walensky,” Frieden said at the time.

These comments did not go unnoticed by Walensky, who said her agency “did not reliably meet expectations” during the pandemic. In mid-2022, Politico obtained documents showing that the Biden administration spent more than $25,000 to provide media training for Walensky beginning in October 2021.

Restructuring the CDC

In response to the criticisms, Walensky also launched an overhaul of the CDC at the start of this year, with the plan seeking to streamline the flow of information throughout the agency.

“As a long-time admirer of this agency and a champion for public health, I want us all to do better, and it starts with CDC leading the way,” Walensky said months before the changes were carried out.

The restructuring involved combining certain offices within the agency, as well as the creation of entirely new offices, including the Office of Health Equity and the Office of Public Health Data, Surveillance and Technology.

One CDC staffer said the changes were intended to “improve efficiency, speed decision-making and strengthen the communication of scientific information to the American public,” all of which were areas that the organization drew disapproval over.

Facing Republican scrutiny

When the GOP took control of the House of Representatives following the 2022 midterm elections, Republican lawmakers vowed to grill Biden-administration health leaders regarding their pandemic response.

The lawmakers followed through with their promise in February, bringing in Walensky, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Robert Califf and then-acting director of the National Institute of Health Lawrence Tabak.

Republicans did not hold back in their criticisms of the officials.

House Energy and Commerce Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) told Walensky that her agency “does not need more authority,” pushing back against the CDC director’s calls for more power.

The end of the public health emergency

In January of this year, the Biden administration officially announced the scheduled end of the public health emergency for COVID-19.

In announcing her departure, Walensky said the end of the emergency declaration marked a “tremendous transition for our country, for public health, and in my tenure as CDC Director.”

The announcement noted Walensky’s efforts in bringing back a “sense of normalcy to an agency that had been enduring significant public adversity related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“While at CDC, I had the true gift of meeting, working with, and giving voice to thousands of people at the agency who work 24/7 to worry about health and public health so that the rest of the nation does not have to,” Walensky added Friday. “I have never been prouder of anything I have done in my professional career.”

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