Former CDC Director Rochelle Walensky discusses the interface between public health and policy at the IOP Forum | News

Rochelle P. Walensky, the 19th director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed leading the CDC amid the Covid-19 pandemic and policy struggles at a forum at the Harvard Policy Institute on Wednesday evening.

Walensky said her appointment to lead the CDC marks a pivotal moment in her career, having previously spent four years as chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.

President Joe Biden’s decision to pick Walensky to lead the center in late 2020 — a time when the agency has become the center of public criticism amid the pandemic — initially shocked her.

“How could I ever do that?” Walensky remembered asking himself.

During his tenure, Walensky said he was fighting the stigma surrounding Covid-19 vaccines to increase vaccination rates to rid the nation of “3,000 deaths a day.”

Much of Walenski’s role during the pandemic involved finding a balance between getting information out to the public quickly while ensuring that any new guidelines released by the CDC were accurate and supported by data.

“I’ve done my best to tell people what we know when we know it,” Walenski said.

Walenski called on the government to update the CDC’s currently “fragile infrastructure,” arguing that the center lacks the adequate funding it needs to effectively carry out its mission.

“I was getting data from a fax machine,” she said. “It’s unreal.”

Walensky, who previously taught at Harvard Medical School before her CDC appointment, received a standing ovation from those in attendance Wednesday night. By Frank C. Zhou

Walensky also noted that the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services receive significantly less funding than other federal agencies tasked with preparing the country to address national security issues.

“The Department of Defense for a pandemic is HHS, and we don’t have the budget that the Department of Defense enjoys,” she said.

Walensky said another milestone during her early tenure was the CDC’s declaration of racism as a serious public health threat in April 2021.

“It was seen as brave,” she said. “I’m told I’m the first to make such a statement about the agency.”

“I’m really proud to say that over 200 public health departments have since followed suit,” she added.

During the event, Walensky also addressed the importance of keeping a distance between politics and the CDC director’s role. In particular, she took aim at legislation passed by Congress earlier this year that now requires the Senate to vote to confirm nominees chosen to lead the CDC.

“In this very polarized situation that we’re in right now, it’s actually going to cause more challenges than help,” she said of the need for the Senate to confirm future CDC directors.

However, Walensky admitted that the role became more political during the pandemic as she had to brief reporters on Covid-19 at White House press conferences, which proved challenging for her as she had no prior experience in politics .

“I was really a deer in the headlights coming in and just absorbing so much,” she said.

Walensky also said it took her a while to realize that people view her appearances at White House press conferences to discuss the pandemic as political acts.

“It wasn’t obvious to me that this was perceived as political and not as healthy,” she said.

However, when reflecting on her ability to effect public health policy changes during her tenure, Walensky said leading a federal agency has given her unique power.

“One of the real gifts of being in government is that then you can actually do something,” she said.

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