CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announces organizational shakeup, citing COVID mistakes

The head of the country’s top public health agency announced a reshuffle of the organization on Wednesday, saying it had failed to respond to COVID-19 and needed to become more nimble.

Planned changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — CDC leaders are calling it a “reset” — come amid criticism the agency’s response to COVID-19, monkeypox and other public health threats. The changes include internal staff moves and measures to speed up data release.

“To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic and quite public errors, from testing to data to communications. As an agency, even with all the great work we do, we still suffer the consequences of these mistakes,” Walensky said. said in a video message shared with agency staff on Wednesday.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky
Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The Atlanta-based agency, with a $12 billion budget and more than 11,000 employees, is tasked with protecting Americans from disease outbreaks and other public health threats. It’s customary for every CDC director to reorganize, but Walensky’s action is part of a larger call for change.

Walensky’s planned reforms stem from a review she commissioned in April, when she brought in a senior official from another federal health agency to diagnose problems at the CDC as it prepared to to end its autonomous response to COVID-19.

That official — James Macrae of the Health Resources & Services Administration — gave a presentation to Walensky detailing his findings in mid-June, focusing on “how the CDC can better translate science and data into actionable policy and communications during a public health emergency”.

“I think our public health infrastructure in the country was not up to the task of managing 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 too heavy-handed, focusing on data collection and analysis but failing to act quickly against emerging health threats. Public dissatisfaction with the agency has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts said the CDC was slow to recognize the amount of virus entering the United States from Europe, to recommend people wear masks, to say the virus can spread through the air and to speed up the systematic testing for new variants.

“We’ve seen during COVID that the CDC structures, frankly, weren’t designed to collect information, digest it, and get it out to the public at the necessary speed,” said Jason Schwartz, a health policy researcher at 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 stumbles continued during her tenure.

“It’s not for me that we’ve failed in so many ways” in response to the coronavirus, Walensky said. “We made some pretty public mistakes, and a big part of that effort was holding the mirror up…to understand where and how we could do better.”

She told CBS News that the agency must have “special forces” that deploy during pandemics.

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

Its proposed reorganization must be approved by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. CDC officials say they hope to have a full set of changes finalized, approved and underway by early next year.

Some changes are still being formulated, but milestones announced on Wednesday include:

  • Increased use of pre-printed scientific reports for actionable data, instead of waiting for research to go through peer review and publication by the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
  • Restructured the agency’s communications office and redesigned CDC websites to make agency guidance for the public clearer and easier to find.
  • Change the amount of time agency leaders are dedicated to outbreak responses to a minimum of six months — an effort to address a turnover issue that has sometimes caused knowledge gaps and affected agency communications.
  • Creation of a new executive council to help Walensky define strategy and priorities.
  • Appoint Mary Wakefield as lead advisor to implement changes. Wakefield led the Health Resources and Services Administration during the Obama administration and also served as HHS’ No. 2 administrator. Wakefield, 68, started on Monday.
  • Changed the agency’s organizational chart to reverse some changes made under the Trump administration.
  • Establish an office of intergovernmental affairs to facilitate partnerships with other organizations, as well as a senior-level office on health equity.

Walensky also said she intends to “get rid of some of the layers of reporting that exist, and I would like to work to break down some of the silos.” She didn’t say exactly what that might entail, but pointed out that the overall changes are less about redesigning the organizational chart and more about rethinking how the CDC does business and motivates staff.

“It will not be a question of simply moving boxes” on the organization chart, she clarified.

A document shared with CBS News outlining Walensky’s plans pledges to “not only change the way the CDC works, but its culture” to prioritize “fast action.”

Schwartz said the flaws in the federal response go beyond the CDC, as the White House and other agencies were heavily implicated.

While he said the reorganization is a positive step, he added that “I hope it’s not the end of the story”. He said he would like to see “a broader accounting” of how the federal government handles health crises.

Aubrey L. Morgan