The White House announced last week that Dr. Rochelle Walensky will be leaving her post as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has led the agency since the start of the Biden administration and guided its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That effort has been less than stellar.
Despite the fact that, by the time Biden entered office, much about the new disease had been elucidated, treatment protocols had been refined, and the FDA had authorized new vaccines and treatments that were already being distributed, almost two-thirds of the nation’s COVID deaths occurred under the Biden administration’s watch. Throughout the pandemic, the CDC’s communications efforts were confusing and ever-changing, and many of its actions appeared to be politically motivated. While Walensky and other administration officials urged people to “follow the science,” they ended up undermining public trust in science and the previously highly respected agency.
One year into her tenure, Dr. Walensky acknowledged that “I think what I have not conveyed is the uncertainty in a lot of these situations.” Later in 2022, Dr. Walensky announced an effort to review and reform the CDC in light of the agency’s poor pandemic performance. She admitted that the CDC has been “responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes, from testing to data to communications.” But her statements and the agency report she ordered suggest a misunderstanding of the real problems.
The agency’s report claimed its shortcomings were in “communications” and due to “chronic underfunding.” Yet, the agency has never been better funded than it was during the last three years, and it had a bigger stage and a more attentive audience to communicate to than ever before.
The CDC’s report failed to recognize that, in the midst of the biggest public health crisis in more than a century, the agency had strayed from its core mission of protecting the nation from communicable, infectious diseases. It was instead invested in other priorities, such as racial equity, social determinants of health, environmental issues, and violence prevention, that are outside the scope of the CDC’s core competency and mission. Indeed, the CDC report proudly and without any sense of awareness or irony notes that, “Just three months into her tenure in April 2021, [Walensky] declared racism as a serious public health threat and established the internal process, CORE , to integrate health equity into the fabric of the agency.”
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