What You Need to Know
- Walensky said the CDC will seek funding for changes in its next budget request.
- Current overhaul plans do not include layoffs.
- A former CDC employee expressed skepticism about whether anything will change.
The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an overhaul of the agency meant to revamp everything from its operations to its culture, saying it had failed to meet expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Director Rochelle Walensky began telling CDC’s staff Wednesday that the changes are aimed at replacing the agency’s insular, academic culture with one that’s quicker to respond to emergencies.
That will mean more rapidly turning research into health recommendations, working better with other parts of government and improving how the CDC communicates with the public.
“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 a statement. “I want us all to do better and it starts with CDC leading the way. My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication and timeliness.”
Missteps by the agency, and criticism from within and without, began almost as soon as SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in the U.S. early in 2020.
The agency has been faulted for an inadequate testing and surveillance program, for not collecting important data on how the virus was spreading and how vaccines were performing, for being too under the influence of the White House during the Trump administration and for repeated challenges communicating to a politically divided and sometimes skeptical public.
In a video message sent to CDC staff Wednesday morning, Walensky said that the U.S. had significant work to do to improve the country’s public health defenses.
“Prior to this pandemic, our infrastructure within the agency and around the country was too frail to tackle what we confronted with COVID-19,” she said, according to a person who viewed the video, and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes — from testing, to data, to communications.”
An infectious disease expert, Walensky took over the agency at the beginning of President Joe Biden’s term with promises of a reinvigorated U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April of this year, she launched a multi-pronged review to evaluate the Atlanta-based agency’s structure, systems and processes – though many of the agency’s challenges have continued on her watch.
At any government body, cultural change can be a challenge – especially so at agencies like the CDC where career officials can have tenures that are decades longer than their politically appointed leaders or elected officials.
In May, Bloomberg reported on some of the feedback that agency staff had raised as part of conversations with those leading the review, in particular focused on cultural issues at the agency and challenges adapting to a new threat.
“The CDC, frankly, hasn’t been transparent or accountable,” said Daniel Pollock, an epidemiologist who worked at the agency for 37 years before retiring in November in part due to frustrations with its pandemic response.
Pollock, who was responsible for the CDC’s surveillance of health care-associated infections, wasn’t consulted as part of the review, but said that he was “not expecting that it’s going to change things.”