President-elect Joe Biden picked Rochelle Walensky, currently the co-director of the Medical Practice Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, to take over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Politico. Walensky Walensky has served as Chair of the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council at the National Institutes of Health and as a member of the US Department of Health and Human Services Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents.
Walensky will replace Robert R. Redfield, who was appointed by President Trump in March 2018. Democrats and watchdog groups criticized Redfield’s $375,000 annual salary, which was significantly higher than the $219,700 salary of his predecessor, Tom Frieden, and even higher than the salary of Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. Within a few days after his appointment, Redfield asked for a pay reduction to $209,700, because he “did not want his compensation to become a distraction from the important work of the CDC.”
Walensky is involved in a medical discussion on the best strategy to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and achieve herd immunity. In November, she co-authored a paper that was published in Health Affairs, which showed that the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine will be strongly affected by the speed that the vaccine is produced and administered; the willingness of people to be vaccinated; and the pandemic’s severity when the vaccine is introduced.
Walensky is Jewish. She is married to Loren Walensky, also a physician and scientist. They have three sons and are members of Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts.
Biden will announce Walensky’s appointment together with other top health officials this week, including Xavier Becerra as secretary of Health and Human Services, Jeff Zients as the Covid-19 coordinator, Vivek Murthy as surgeon general, and Marcella Nunez-Smith as senior advisor on health disparities.
According to Politico, Biden plans to revive the CDC’s role in shaping policy and addressing the public, with regular media briefings by career health officials, whose participation has been discouraged by President Donald Trump. On Friday, the CDC recommended wearing facemasks at all times when not at home, in direct contradiction of the messages from the White House.
When the first vaccines become available over the next two months, the CDC will play a critical role in managing their distribution, a complex process that is expected to be the largest immunization drive in US history.
Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center, told the Boston Globe that Walensky, who was his mentor at Mass. General, “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, and somebody who has literally committed her entire career to health – to the health of the community,” Barocas said.
Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School who co-authored journal articles with Walensky, told The Globe that “what this country needs right now is strong clinical and public health leadership at the CDC. She will be able to restore the CDC as the nation’s preeminent public health agency.”