Rochelle Walensky, who led the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through some of the grimmest phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, announced Friday that she will leave the agency at the end of June.
US president Joe Biden chose Walensky, an infectious-disease specialist, to head an agency that had been sidelined and mismanaged during the first year of the pandemic, when Donald Trump was president. Walensky steered the agency through the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines and the subsequent changes to CDC recommendations on masking, quarantine and other infection-control measures. Under her watch, the agency also coordinated the US response to the global mpox outbreak and an outbreak of Ebola in Uganda.
Her decision became public the same day that the World Health Organization announced it was ending the global health emergency designation for COVID-19. The US public-health emergency ends on 11 May.
“Dr. Walensky has saved lives with her steadfast and unwavering focus on the health of every American,” Biden said in a statement.
One of her most important accomplishments is the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, says Lawrence Gostin, a health-law and policy specialist at Georgetown University in Washington DC. According to CDC data, more than 80% of the US population has received at least one vaccine dose, despite the politicization of the pandemic and the spread of disinformation about the vaccines’ effectiveness and side effects.
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But during Walensky’s tenure, the agency has also drawn criticism from scientists for some of its public guidance and communications — for instance, its decision, in the thick of an Omicron wave, to shorten the recommended isolation period for some people with COVID-19.
There were “a lot of confusing messages coming out of the CDC” while Walensky was in charge, Gostin says.
But he and others praised Walensky’s leadership, even if they did not always see eye-to-eye with the CDC’s actions over the last two years.
“While I vehemently disagreed with some of the CDC policies and data inadequacy along the way, I have very high regard for her abilities and indefatigable work to support the health of Americans in this prolonged crisis,” says Eric Topol, executive vice-president at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. “It’s a thankless job that would naturally be mired in controversy, and we should recognize she did her best despite many inherent obstacles.”
“She fought the good fight,” Gostin says, praising her advocacy for better data collection and surveillance. “I want to applaud her service to the country under very difficult circumstances.”
The next CDC director, Gostin says, must be a strong communicator with experience on the “front lines” of public health. And with the pandemic entering a new phase, the CDC must regain the authority to make public-health decisions without White House interference, he adds.
“My biggest concern about this is what it may mean for efforts to reform CDC”, tweeted Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. “It is critical that we overhaul the agency well before the next emergency.”
Walensky’s resignation statement did not mention what she plans to do after leaving the agency. Before joining the CDC, she was chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and an HIV/AIDS researcher at Harvard Medical School, also in Boston.
Additional reporting by Max Kozlov.