On Sunday evening, December 6, the news broke in several news media reports that President-elect Joe Biden will name Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), replacing Robert R. Redfield, M.D., the current CDC Director.
According to Mass General’s website profile of her, Dr. Walensky obtained her medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and her M.P.H. from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and did her residency at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and her fellowship in nephrology at Mass General.
In reporting the news, The Wall Street Journal’s Betsy McKay wrote on Sunday night that “President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Rochelle Walensky as the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a person familiar with the decision, bringing a respected infectious diseases expert to the helm of a critical but demoralized agency that has struggled in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, will succeed Robert Redfield, who has led the CDC since 2018. The position doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Dr. Walensky faces a challenging assignment: leading the agency back to the front-line role it traditionally plays in fighting epidemics, and battling a surge in the pandemic that has sent the number of hospitalizations and deaths soaring,” McKay wrote. She also noted that, while on the one hand, the Trump White House has openly intervened in CDC operations around the COVID-19 pandemic, “The agency has also suffered from its own mistakes, including errors that led to a delay in the rollout of a critical coronavirus diagnostic test that could have caught infections earlier in the pandemic.”
McKay also noted that, “Like Dr. Redfield and many others leading the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Walensky draws her expertise from an extensive background in HIV. She is a widely respected policy researcher known for her work showing the cost-effectiveness of HIV testing, care and prevention strategies, and an outspoken advocate for HIV patients. She has served on several federal advisory panels.”
Meanwhile, POLITICO’s Tyler Pager wrote on Sunday night that “Biden is planning to announce Walensky along with a slate of top health officials this week, including Xavier Becerra as secretary of Health and Human Services, Jeff Zients as the Covid-19 coordinator and Vivek Murthy as surgeon general. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor at Yale who is an expert on health care inequality, will have a senior role focused on health disparities. The Biden transition declined to comment on Sunday. Walensky could not be reached for comment. In the Biden administration, the CDC will take on a much larger and public role, with plans to revive regular media briefings and give a central role to career officials who have been pushed aside by President Donald Trump. Biden and his advisers have emphasized that they want to prioritize scientists over politics in responding to the pandemic,” she added. She also noted that “The CDC will also play a critical role in managing the distribution of a Covid vaccine, an incredibly complex process that will be one of the largest immunization campaigns in U.S. history.”
The Boston Globe’s Felice J. Freyer and John Hilliard wrote on Sunday night that, “ On Sunday night, news of Walensky’s upcoming job leading the nation’s premier health agency was lauded by some of her medical colleagues, including Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center. Barocas considers Walensky a mentor since he served a fellowship at Mass. General from 2015 to 2018.” Dr. Barocas told the Globe reporters, “looks at health through the lens of not just the absence of disease but also the promotion of well-being.” “It will be nice to have an actual scientist as the head of the CDC,” Barocas added, “and somebody who has literally committed her entire career to health -- to the health of the community.”
And Freyer and Hilliard quoted Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, as saying that she “exclaimed out loud” when she saw the headline about Walensky, with whom she has co-authored journal articles. “What this country needs right now is strong clinical and public health leadership at the CDC,” Marcus told The Globe. “She will be able to restore the CDC as the nation’s preeminent public health agency.”
Meanwhile, The Hill’s Joseph Choi reported on Sunday night that, “As part of her work, Walensky has studied the effectiveness of a potential coronavirus vaccine. She recently completed a study in partnership with Yale University looking at the efficacy rates of the coronavirus vaccines on a general population. Using a model they developed, the research team found that regardless of a vaccine’s effectiveness, the timing of its distribution was just as important to combating the pandemic. “If you have a cup of water and it can put out a fire on your stove, that same cup of water can't put out a forest fire,” Walensky told the Harvard Crimson. And he added that “Her research into the pandemic may prove to be invaluable in her new role as many experts have warned one of Biden’s first challenges in office will be distributing the vaccine and convincing enough people to get immunized.: