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New CDC Director Rochelle Walensky Shares Tactics To Improve COVID-19 Response

CDC director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH

Chip Somodevilla / Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The new CDC director, Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, is calling for a review of all the agency's COVID-19 guidance.
  • As she assumes her new role, Walensky plans to make the CDC more accessible and transparent.
  • Securing more funding for public health programs is one of her major goals.

On January 20, Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, began her first day on the job as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by asking for “a comprehensive review of all existing guidance related to COVID-19.”

In a CDC media statement, Walensky, previously the chief of the Division of Infectious Disease Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said “wherever needed, [the] guidance will be updated so that people can make decisions and take action based upon the best available evidence.”

Prior to joining the CDC, Walensky also served as Chair of the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council (NIH) from 2014 to 2015. Her HIV/AIDS research helped inform national policy.

Making sure that guidance actually reaches people is one of Walensky's goals for the immediate future of the CDC. On Tuesday, she participated in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Q&A series to discuss her priorities for the CDC and its pandemic response. Here are three takeaways from the livestreamed conversation about what to expect of this new era for the CDC.

More Funding for Better Public Health Programs

“Part of the challenge with COVID-19 is that we had a frail public health infrastructure to start," Walensky told JAMA. "It just wasn’t ready to tackle what it was given...so we need to fix that public health infrastructure and we need resources to do it."

By resources, Walensky means government funding.

"One of my challenges is making sure that Congress knows and understands that we are in this because we had warnings from many, many other public health scares from the past 20 years and we didn’t fix our public health infrastructure and our data infrastructure.”

That improved infrastructure for data tracking will be crucial to staying on top of newer COVID-19 variants.

"Part of the challenge of recognizing these variants is a lack of public health laboratory infrastructure in order to do the surveillance," Walensky said. "Part of [President Biden’s] budget is to bolster that dramatically. The work is already being done to create those connections with industry and academia and public health labs to make sure we have a really good influx and we can follow these variants across the country, those that may be coming initially from countries abroad, and those that may be emanating from our own country." 

Better Communication

When it comes to healthy data and recommendations, Walensky wants to meet people where they are. Expect to see more of the CDC on Twitter.

“I want to be able to convey in layman's terms what the science shows, when guidelines change, and when MMWRs (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports) are released and what that science shows,” she said. “Print isn’t going away and the science conveyed in that way is not going away. I can do television appearances, I can do interviews, we can do media briefings. But science is conveyed through Twitter. Science is conveyed on social media, on podcasts, in many different ways...We have to have a social media plan for the agency.” 

A Commitment to Equity

A discussion of COVID-19 vaccine distribution issues prompted a bigger-picture conversation about making COVID-19 care and vaccinations more fairly available.

"There’s been a lot of work to make sure that we’re following the CDC and the ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) guidance, but not too strictly that too many people are being held back and there’s doses on the shelves," Walensky said.

Echoing Biden's federal vaccination program outlined last week, Walensky added that vaccines will be distributed in four types of locations:

  1. Community vaccination centers
  2. Mobile units
  3. Federally-qualified health centers
  4. Pharmacies

"The vision of that sort of four-pronged approach to places is really founded in equity," she said. "We want to make sure we can deliver volume, but also volume to the people in places that might be harder to reach."

What This Means For You

Under new leadership, the CDC is currently reviewing its COVID-19 guidance. This will likely result in some updates, such as criteria for opening schools and more information on how to stay safe during the pandemic. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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