After falling short ‘in our big moment,’ CDC Director Rochelle Walensky plans to revamp agency

The Centers for Disease Control will be reorganized, she says. Critics have said the agency’s guidance and leadership have been lacking.

Many have called for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be reorganized, refocused and more proactive.

Now, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is offering the same assessment, admitting the agency has stumbled in its "big moment", namely, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walensky outlined plans Wednesday to revamp the CDC. The agency has endured blistering criticism for offering guidance in the pandemic that is either too late, confusing, or simply inadequate.

Walensky told The Associated Press she sees it as “my responsibility to lead this agency to a better place after a really challenging three years.” She took over as CDC director in January 2021.

The reorganization plans

She outlined several steps to reorganize the CDC, including the following, according to the AP and other media reports.

Better communications: Guidance to the public will be easier to understand, and CDC websites would be redesigned so the public could find information more easily. The CDC’s communications office would be restructured.

Improved collaboration with federal agencies: The CDC will form an intergovernmental affairs office to collaborate more effectively with other federal agencies.

Better outbreak response: CDC leaders tapped to respond to outbreaks would spend a minimum of six months on those efforts. Critics have said the turnover of officials has hampered those efforts.

New advisers: Walensky calls for a new executive council to set priorities. In addition, Mary Wakefield, former director of the Health Resources and Services Administration, has been appointed to help implement changes, the AP reports.

Earlier reporting: The CDC typically waits for scientific studies to be reviewed by peers and published, but the agency says it will use more preprint scientific reports to alert the public of important data and findings.

Walensky also issued a public statement outlining how the CDC has fallen short during the pandemic, CNBC reported.

“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,” Walensky said in the statement. “My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness.”

The CDC also plans to create an office on health equity, the AP and CNBC reported. President Biden’s administration has made addressing health equity a top priority.

‘The right moves to make’

Tom Frieden, a former director of the CDC, offered support for the reorganization plans.

“CDC has some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated public health experts in the world,” Frieden wrote. “Refocusing on rapid, practical action is an important step to better protect people in the U.S. and globally.

“The more effective our preeminent public health agency is, the safer we are from all health threats,” Frieden said.

Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under former President Donald Trump, has been a critic of the CDC’s performance. But he offered praised for the CDC’s plans in a post on Twitter.

“CDC's proposed reforms and the self-analysis fueling these changes are the right diagnosis and prescription,” Gottlieb wrote. “They represent bold, comprehensive commitments that will go a long way to address many of the system challenges that plagued CDC for many years.”

Caitlin Rivers, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Security, wrote on Twitter that the CDC’s plans are “the right moves to make.”

“CDC needs to strengthen operational capacities in service of faster, more effective response,” she wrote, adding, “I hope that shortened clearance processes and growing cadre of permanent response experts also make the cut.”

Just last week, the CDC eased some of its recommendations for businesses and schools related to the pandemic.

Schools and other institutions are no longer advised to maintain six-feet distances for social distancing or screen apparently healthy people. The CDC also says individuals don’t have to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19, but should wear a mask for 10 days and get tested after the fifth day.

Some said the CDC’s guidance reflects the higher vaccination rate and developments of better treatments. But some critics said it’s another sign of the CDC not doing enough to lead at a time when hundreds continue to die of COVID-19 each day. More than 40,000 Americans are being treated in hospitals for COVID-19.

The CDC gets $8.5 billion in federal aid in the current budget. President Biden has proposed spending $10.675 billion in 2023, an increase over $2 billion. The CDC has said it would use the additional funds to bolster preparations for future public health emergencies and help reduce health disparities in minority groups.

Congress may want to see CDC change its focus in order to get more money, including concentrating on core disease control efforts, Gottlieb wrote on Twitter.

“If there's going to be a grand political bargain in Congress to give CDC more resources and authorities, it'll come in the context of also focusing CDC's mission more tightly on its core obligations,” he wrote.