Opinion | As the New C.D.C. Chief, I’ll Tell You the Truth

Last Wednesday, the same day our nation’s Capitol was in the grips of an insurrection, the United States recorded 3,964 deaths from Covid-19, a record high. That day, Covid-19 claimed a life every 22 seconds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that this month the country will surpass more than 400,000 deaths from Covid.

The challenge ahead is enormous.

On Jan. 20, I will begin leading the C.D.C., which was founded in 1946 to meet precisely the kinds of challenges posed by this pandemic. I agreed to serve as C.D.C. director because I believe in the agency’s mission and commitment to knowledge, statistics and guidance. I will do so by leading with facts, science and integrity — and being accountable for them, as the C.D.C. has done since its founding 75 years ago.

I acknowledge that our team of scientists will have to work very hard to restore public trust in the C.D.C., at home and abroad, because it has been undermined over the last year. In that time, numerous reports stated that White House officials interfered with official guidance issued by the C.D.C.

As chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital, I and many others found these reports to be extremely disturbing. The C.D.C.’s science — the gold standard for the nation’s public health — has been tarnished. Hospitals, doctors, state health officials and others rely on the guidance of the C.D.C., not just for Covid-19 policies around quarantine, isolation, testing and vaccination, but also for staying healthy while traveling, strategies to prevent obesity, information on food safety and more.

As C.D.C. director, it will be my responsibility to make sure that the public trusts the agency’s guidance and that its staff feels supported. On my first day, I will ask Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director, with 32 years of experience at the C.D.C., to begin a comprehensive review to ensure that all existing guidance related to Covid-19 is evidence-based and free of politics.

Restoring the public’s trust in the C.D.C. is crucial. Hospitals and health care providers are beyond tired, beyond stretched. I know because I have stood among them, on the front lines of the Covid-19 response in Massachusetts. We also face the need for the largest public health operation in a century, vaccinating the population — twice — to protect ourselves and each other from a surging pandemic. Because the impact of Covid-19 does not fall equally on everyone, we must redouble our efforts to reach every corner of the U.S. population.

The research and guidance provided by the civil servants at the C.D.C. should continue regardless of what political party is in power. Novel scientific breakthroughs do not follow four-year terms. As I start my new duties, I will tell the president, Congress and the public what we know when we know it, and I will do so even when the news is bleak, or when the information may not be what those in the administration want to hear.  

Never before has the C.D.C.’s partnership with Congress been so important. Last year demonstrated how a frail, poorly tended public health infrastructure can bring a great country to its knees. Public health has been diminished and underfunded for years. The relief package that Congress passed in December is a good start, but more funds will surely be needed to increase the pace of the vaccine rollout; to strengthen data reporting, management and analytics; and to conduct proper surveillance not just of this virus but also of future pathogenic threats.

Our successful recovery from this virus requires us to make sure that those who have suffered disproportionately are no longer left behind. As the C.D.C. director, I will work to address inequities that have left African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans hospitalized and dying at disproportionately higher rates from Covid-19, by focusing on the health conditions that are prevalent in communities of color.

Our nation faces untold collateral damage from this pandemic. Life expectancy rates among middle-age adults had already decreased in recent years. Data will likely show that in the past year we have lost more hard-earned ground on immunizing children, helping people control their blood pressure and reducing rates of preventable chronic conditions. Rates of substance-use, opioid overdoses, depression and suicide have soared. We are in the middle of a behavioral health crisis that demands intervention.

I promise to work with my colleagues at the C.D.C. to harness the power of American science and confront these challenges.

Rochelle P. Walensky (@rwalensky) chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, has been nominated by President-elect Biden to be the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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