Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, submitted her resignation Friday, citing the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic as a good time to make a transition. Walensky’s last day will be June 30th, CDC officials said, and an interim director wasn’t immediately named.
She sent a resignation letter to President Joe Biden and announced the decision at a CDC staff meeting, surprising many health experts. In her letter, she expressed “mixed feelings” about the decision and didn’t explain exactly why she was stepping down, but said the nation is at a moment of transition as emergency declarations come to an end.
Walensky, previously an infectious-diseases specialist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, had no experience running a government health agency when she was sworn in on the first day of the Biden administration. She was brought in to raise morale at the CDC, rebuild public trust in the agency and improve its response to the pandemic, which had been bumbling.
At the time of her arrival, more than 400,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths had been reported, and states were scrambling to get supplies of new vaccines. Morale at the CDC was abysmal. The Trump administration had marginalized the agency, with the White House taking over the government’s messaging about the pandemic and sometimes opposing or undermining what the CDC wanted to do. Nonetheless, she had a reputation as a prominent voice on the pandemic, sometimes criticizing how the government was responding.
The CDC regained prominence in government messaging under Walensky’s leadership. However, even under Biden, the White House remained at center stage in the handling of the response, according to Jason Schwartz, a health policy expert at the Yale School of Public Health. Walensky leaves at a time when the national COVID-19 death toll stands at about 1.1 million. Reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all been trending down for months.
At CDC, Walensky started a center for forecasting and outbreak analytics and took steps to modernize data collection and analysis. Last year, she began a reorganization designed to make the agency more nimble and to improve its communications with the public. Biden said Walensky “leaves CDC a stronger institution, better positioned to confront health threats and protect Americans.”
However, there were stumbles during Walensky’s tenure. In the spring of 2021, Walensky said fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in many settings, only to reverse course as the then-new delta variant spread.
In December 2021, the agency’s decision to shorten isolation and quarantine caught many by surprise and caused confusion. Walensky and other U.S. officials were criticized last year for not being aggressive enough against an emerging mpox outbreak that faded in the late summer and fall.
Pandemic expert Jennifer Nuzzo at Brown University School of Public Health is concerned that the proposed reforms won’t happen without Walensky there to drive them. “CDC is exhausted. They have been working around the clock, nonstop, for three years with little gratitude,” she said. “To have a leadership change in the midst of all that … I can’t imagine that doesn’t take the wind out of the sails of change.”
Walensky’s resignation comes as the World Health Organization said Friday that COVID-19 no longer qualifies as a global emergency, marking a symbolic end to the devastating coronavirus pandemic that triggered once-unthinkable lockdowns, upended economies worldwide, and killed at least 7 million people worldwide.
With a $12 billion budget and more than 12,000 employees, the CDC is an Atlanta-based federal agency charged with protecting Americans from disease outbreaks and other public health threats.
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