Rochelle Walensky’s just-concluded tenure as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must be considered a failure. Over her two-year stint, the CDC delivered ineffective and unscientific advice about the Covid pandemic, and the government cited that advice to impose extensive restrictions. When many credible scientists outside the CDC pointed this out, they were vilified.
In a rather exceptional moment last August, Walensky made a public admission that the CDC had failed. While she did not offer an apology, her exaggerated understatement—“In our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations”—was accompanied by a promise that she would initiate major managerial reforms.
Of course, no one with any familiarity of how Washington works suspected that this mea culpa was anything but PR to keep her job. Examples of government agencies self-correcting are scarce. Besides, Walensky’s previous management experience would not have equipped her for leading reform in a massive organization. Before heading the 11,000-person CDC, she directed a small clinical unit at a Boston teaching hospital. Since the CDC’s failure was recently rewarded with a 30 percent budget increase, why would anyone forecast improvement?
President Biden’s choice of Walensky’s successor would seem to send another signal that improving the CDC holds little importance for the White House. The president’s nominee, Mandy Cohen, resembles her predecessor: she is a member of the clubby establishment of right-thinking officials who see their life’s work not so much as protecting public health as leveraging public-health threats, imaginary or otherwise, as justifications for imposing new rules about how others live their lives.
Like many others in Washington, Cohen appears to have managed her career with a view of eventually holding appointed office. Schooled in the right colleges and having organized a “Doctors for Obama” movement, she began securing political appointments. In 2017, Cohen became North Carolina’s health secretary; working in that role during Covid, she dutifully followed CDC guidance, mandating lockdowns and school closures and forbidding open-air football games.
Yet as Cohen takes the CDC’s helm, she has an opportunity to shift gears. A spot as one of history’s legendary agency leaders, like William Foege, who greatly improved the CDC’s scientific reputation, or Don Fredrickson, whose vision shaped the NIH as we know it today, could await—if Cohen makes the following changes.
First, she should avoid allowing the agency to assume blatant political roles. When Walensky, at White House prompting, provided American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten scientific cover for keeping the nation’s schools closed, she allied the CDC with the teachers’ union. This indicated to the nation’s public-health infrastructure, whose thinking is shaped by CDC policy and enforced by its huge grantmaking budget, that local officials could close schools with impunity and without a solid scientific basis.
Second, notwithstanding the White House’s desires, Cohen should keep the CDC from exercising legal authorities that it does not possess. Apparently carried away by the notion of unlimited police powers, and unchecked by the agency’s general counsel, Walensky imposed a national moratorium on evictions, despite no evidence that abrogating landlord-tenant law would prevent the spread of Covid. The Supreme Court eventually determined that this move was unconstitutional.
Third, regardless of the White House’s commitment to open borders, the next head of the CDC should insist that every immigrant crossing illegally into the U.S. be denied entry if suffering any of the CDC’s “class A” communicable diseases: infectious tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea, and Hansen’s disease. Perhaps more importantly, all immigrant minors should be fully inoculated against the seven communicable diseases mandated for school children throughout the country. Instantly, the CDC’s current reputation—an agency that enforces one standard for American citizens while actively ignoring an obvious breach of good public-health practice for millions of illegals, putting at risk the lives of American children—would be reversed, and some of the CDC’s lost credibility might be regained.
Fourth, the agency’s headquarters should stay in Atlanta. Numerous think-tank and foundation reports have proposed ways to reform the CDC. Among the least sensible suggestions is that its leadership should be relocated to Washington so that the agency can be more in tune with the goals of the political class. On the contrary, depoliticizing the CDC should be its next leader’s top objective.
Finally, Cohen should stick to science—real science, not the phony “science” used endlessly by the CDC to justify whatever it deemed necessary. Federal officials used pliant news outlets and social media to declare anything that diverged from CDC diktats to be “misinformation.” The result, and Walensky’s true legacy, is that many Americans came to distrust the CDC’s guidance. Today, 14 percent of Americans have less confidence in all vaccines than they did prior to the CDC’s jumbled messaging on the Covid vaccine.
If Cohen can rescue the CDC from its political servitude and restore its once-deserved reputation for scientific exploration in the expanding context of communicable threats, then she can become a genuine public-health hero. But to do so, she’ll have to break with her past—and her president.
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