Experts in public health offered quick praise for President-elect Joe Biden’s choice of a noted HIV expert to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describing this as a key post in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, is Biden’s choice to be director of the CDC, according to a statement from the Biden-Harris transition team.
“Biden has chosen one of the most respected infectious disease docs in the world. She has a long history working on HIV and has, in the past year, become a tour de force in addressing COVID,” wrote Jen Kates, PhD, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the nonprofit nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, on Twitter.
In selecting @RWalensky, Biden has chosen one of the most respected infectious disease docs in the world. She has a long history working on HIV and has, in the past year, become a tour de force in addressing COVID. She’ll take the helm of CDC at perhaps its most critical moment. https://t.co/VtMNdLN06p
— Jen Kates (@jenkatesdc) December 7, 2020
In Kates’ view, Walensky will “take the helm of CDC at perhaps its most critical moment.”
In a similar vein, Megan Ranney, MD, MPH, a practicing emergency physician and researcher at Brown University, wrote on Twitter that she was “excited to see our nation’s preeminent #publichealth organization move back into its role as a leader of honest research, communication, & action.”
— Megan Ranney MD MPH 🗽 (@meganranney) December 7, 2020
The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) and HIV Medicine Association on Monday issued a joint statement praising Biden’s pick.
Walensky is a “gifted infectious diseases physician and leader who has demonstrated a deep commitment to the application of public health and science in leading evidence-based, equitable and cost-effective responses to some of the greatest public health challenges our nation faces,” wrote Barbara D. Alexander, MD, MHS, president of IDSA, and Rajesh T. Gandhi, MD, chair of the HIV Medicine Association. Walensky has served as a member of HIVMA’s board.
In the biography accompanying the announcement about Walensky’s selection as CDC chief, the Biden transition team described her as “one of America’s most respected experts on the value of testing and treatment of deadly viruses.”
The biography also says Walensky has “served on the frontline of the pandemic in Massachusetts, and conducted research on vaccine delivery and strategies to reach underserved communities.”
“Kindness Amid Crisis”
In a video posted in May to the YouTube channel of the Boston Children’s Chorus, Walensky spoke about the support that healthcare professionals have offered each other during the pandemic.
Titled “Listen In with Dr. Rochelle Walensky | Kindness Amid Crisis,” the video identifies her as both the parent of a singer in the chorus’ Young Men’s Ensemble and chief of infectious diseases at Mass General. She said she talked extensively with colleagues whose regions had not yet experienced severe waves of COVID-19 infections, trying to prepare them for what to expect. Walensky said she also spoke with fellow healthcare professionals in New York, seeking their advice about how to respond.
The pandemic “made the world a lot smaller, and it’s been an incredibly beautiful time, actually, to be in medicine, as hard and as difficult as it’s been,” Walensky said.
In greater Boston, for example, the community has shown its appreciation for healthcare workers, she said. She spoke of “amazing restaurants” sending food for HCWs and noted the daffodils that have traditionally lined the Boston Marathon route were instead placed outside of hospitals, including Mass General.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of that, watching what people are doing for one another,” Walensky said. “People are just begging to help. It’s really been incredible.”
“You need to 1. Communicate with the American people 2. Run a sprawling organization 3. Understand, effectively use tools of public health,” Jha wrote. “Lots of people can do one of these. No one I know can do all 3 as well as @RWalensky,” using her Twitter handle.
Running @CDCgov complicated, especially in a crisis
You need to
1. Communicate with the American people
2. Run a sprawling organization
3. Understand, effectively use tools of public health
Lots of people can do one of these
No one I know can do all 3 as well as @RWalensky
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) December 7, 2020
Walensky is a past chair of the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council at the National Institutes of Health and chair-elect of the HIV Medical Association, according to the statement from the Biden transition team.
Walensky also previously served as an adviser to both the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
Originally from Maryland, Walensky holds her bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, an MD from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard.
On Monday, Walensky tweeted that she was “honored to be called to lead the brilliant team at the CDC.”
“We are ready to combat this virus with science and facts,” she wrote.
I began my medical career at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and I've spent my life ever since working to research, treat, and combat infectious diseases.
I'm honored to be called to lead the brilliant team at the CDC. We are ready to combat this virus with science and facts.
— Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH (@RWalensky) December 7, 2020
Would Replace Embattled Director
Walensky would replace current CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, whose tenure has included episodes of controversy and seemingly mixed messages related to the Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic.
In September, for example, Redfield said at a Senate hearing that wearing a face mask may provide more protection against the coronavirus than a potential vaccine. Redfield also said it would likely be 2021 before any vaccine is available to most Americans. President Donald Trump subsequently told reporters Redfield was “confused.”
The New York Times in October reported that William H. Foege, MD, MPH, who led the CDC from 1977 to 1983, had called on Redfield to “stand up to a bully” — meaning Trump — even at the risk of being fired from his post.
“Silence becomes complicity,” Foege said in an interview, the Times reported, after a private letter he wrote to Redfield was leaked to the media.