CDC director Rochelle Walensky announces organizational uproar, citing COVID flaws

The head of the country’s largest public health agency announced a shake-up of the organization on Wednesday, saying it was unresponsive to COVID-19 and needed to become more agile.

The planned changes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — CDC leaders call it a “reset” — are coming in the midst of criticism of the agency’s response to COVID-19, monkeypox and other public health threats. The changes include internal staff moves and steps to accelerate data releases.

The director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told agency staff about the changes on Wednesday. It is a CDC initiative and was not led by the White House or other government officials, she said.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to take this agency to a better place after a really challenging three years,” Walensky told The Associated Press.

Senate health committee examines ongoing response to COVID-19
Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; speaks during the COVID Federal Response Hearing on Capitol Hill on June 16, 2022 in Washington, DC.

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The Atlanta-based agency, with a $12 billion budget and more than 11,000 employees, is charged with protecting Americans from disease outbreaks and other public health threats. It’s common for every CDC director to reorganize some, but Walensky’s action comes amid a broader demand for change.

“I don’t think our public health infrastructure in the country was up to the task of handling this pandemic,” Walensky told CBS News, chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. “We’ve learned some hard lessons over the past three years and as part of that it’s my responsibility, it’s the agency’s responsibility, to learn from those lessons and do better.”

The agency has long been criticized as being too heavy, focused on collecting and analyzing data, but not quick to act against new health threats. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public discontent with the agency increased dramatically. Experts said the CDC has been slow to recognize how much virus entered the US from Europe, recommend that people wear masks, say the virus can spread through the air and ramp up systematic testing for new variants.

“We’ve seen during COVID that, frankly, CDC’s structures are not designed to absorb, process, and disseminate information to the public at the speed necessary,” said Jason Schwartz, a health policy researcher at the Yale School of Public. health.

Walensky, who became director in January 2021, has long said the agency needs to move faster and communicate better, but the stumbling blocks remained during her tenure. In April, she called for a major overhaul of the agency, which resulted in the announced changes.

“It has not escaped my notice that we fell short in many ways,” Walensky said in response to the coronavirus. “We had some pretty public mistakes, and so much of this effort was to hold up the mirror… to understand where and how we could do better.”

She told CBS News that the agency needs “special forces” to be deployed during pandemics.

“I have no doubt they are up to the task,” she told LaPook.

Her reorganization proposal must be approved by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. CDC officials say they hope to have a full package of changes finalized, approved and launched by early next year.

Some changes are still being formulated, but the steps announced on Wednesday are:

  • Increasing use of preprinted scientific reports to obtain actionable data, rather than waiting for research to pass through peer review and publication by the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
  • Restructuring the agency’s communications office and further revamping CDC websites to make the agency’s guidelines clearer and easier to find for the public.
  • Changing the length of time agency executives spend responding to outbreaks to a minimum of six months — an effort to address a revenue issue that sometimes created gaps in knowledge and affected agency communications.
  • Creation of a new executive council to assist Walensky in determining strategy and priorities.
  • Appoint Mary Wakefield as senior counselor to drive the changes. Wakefield headed the Health Resources and Services Administration during the Obama administration and also served as the No. 2 administrator at HHS. Wakefield, 68, started Monday.
  • Modification of the agency’s organizational chart to undo some of the changes made during the Trump administration.
  • Establishment of an intergovernmental affairs office to facilitate partnerships with other agencies, as well as a senior health equality office.

Walensky also said she plans to “get rid of some of the existing reporting layers, and I’d like to work to break down some of the silos.” She didn’t say exactly what that might mean, but emphasized that the overall changes have less to do with redrawing the org chart than rethinking how the CDC conducts business and motivates its workforce.

“These aren’t just any moving boxes” on the org chart, she said.

Schwartz said shortcomings in the federal response extend beyond the CDC, as the White House and other agencies were closely involved.

While he said the reorganization is a positive step, he added: “I hope this isn’t the end of the story.” He said he would like to see a “broader accounting” of how the federal government is handling health crises.

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