The leader of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an organizational “reset” Wednesday, in response to the agency’s widely criticized performance during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “I want us all to do better and it starts with CDC leading the way. My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication and timeliness.”
The nation’s public health agency stumbled from the outset of the Covid crisis in early 2020. Its first test for the virus was flawed, delaying the rollout of a national testing and monitoring program for several critical weeks. The CDC’s public communications were criticized for being unclear, and the agency was hammered for being too close to the Trump administration, which stood accused of politicizing the government’s response to the pandemic.
A four-month review of the agency’s performance led by Jim Macrae, an official in the Department of Health and Human Services, concluded that the CDC failed to meet its own expectations. The review criticized the agency for failing to share information in a timely manner and for being unclear about the agency’s “current level of understanding” of the state of the disease throughout the pandemic.
Making corrections: Walensky made it clear that she wants to enact major reforms. “Prior to this pandemic, our infrastructure within the agency and around the country was too frail to tackle what we confronted with Covid-19,” she said in a video address to CDC staff. “To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes — from testing, to data, to communications.”
Walensky has appointed former Health and Human Services Department Deputy Secretary Mary Wakefield to oversee changes in the organization, which include the creation of a new executive council that will define the agency’s priorities, monitor progress and make budgetary decisions.
The CDC also plans to overhaul staff training, improve lab facilities and make its public-facing website easier to use and understand.
The agency did not say how much these changes are expected to cost but will seek funding to execute the planned improvements in its next budget request.
Another threat to address: The organizational changes can’t come too soon, since the CDC is once again under fire for its handling of monkeypox, which started spreading in the U.S. in the spring. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb accused the CDC of failing with the latest outbreak in all too familiar ways.
“Our country’s response to monkeypox has been plagued by the same shortcomings we had with Covid-19,” Gottlieb wrote in The New York Times in late July. “Now if monkeypox gains a permanent foothold in the United States and becomes an endemic virus that joins our circulating repertoire of pathogens, it will be one of the worst public health failures in modern times not only because of the pain and peril of the disease but also because it was so avoidable.”