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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky will step down

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is stepping down at the end of June. In a statement, President Biden said that Walensky, quote, "leaves CDC a stronger institution, better positioned to confront health threats and protect Americans." NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to tell us more about the announcement and Walensky's time at the CDC. Hey.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Selena, was this a surprise?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I did hear from staffers at CDC and others in the public health world today who were surprised. Walensky was just yesterday testifying in front of Congress, and there was no inkling that this was going to drop. But from a political perspective, there's a sense that it was kind of maybe time for her to step aside. And one clue was that the news actually broke when the White House commented on her departure. CDC's email announcing she would step down came an hour later.

SUMMERS: OK. So remind us, if you can, who she is and what her background was before she was the head of the CDC.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She is a physician with a background in HIV. When President Biden appointed her, she was running the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital, and she was a professor of medicine at Harvard. I spoke to several people who knew her well when the appointment was announced who were just over the moon. I mean, she was known as a charismatic, an incredibly smart leader. But this was a tough assignment. Today I spoke with Drew Altman. He's president and CEO of KFF, and he says it's important to remember this context.

DREW ALTMAN: She led the CDC at perhaps the most challenging time in its history, in the middle of an absolute crisis, after a period of time during the Trump administration, when it had been politicized.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Remember; it was a year into the pandemic. CDC had been found to have changed public health guidance based on political interference. There were accusations about how data was being handled. It was an incredibly challenging moment for CDC.

SUMMERS: Right. And so thinking back, in early 2021, she came to Atlanta to run this huge public health agency. How would you describe her time there?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, for Americans, she became a familiar face in regular White House pandemic briefings, alongside Dr. Anthony Fauci at NIH. But even in the first year, she faced criticism for communication missteps. So, for example, she told people that once you got vaccinated, you couldn't spread COVID-19. And in the summer of 2021, more data made clear that that was not true. And that made her the target of a lot of vitriol, especially from Republican lawmakers and media figures.

She was also criticized for mask guidance and confusing booster guidance, and she survived calls for her to go in all of those cases. But I've heard that the Biden administration was in favor of her leaving and just couldn't find a good time without stressing the pandemic response, so it seems like the end of the public health emergency that's scheduled for next week offers a natural transition.

And Altman and others give her credit for trying to depoliticize CDC, put it on a better track. She started a reorganization that's ongoing. And Altman says she led the agency with science and dignity. In Walensky's letter to CDC staff today, she describes her departure as one of mixed emotions and wrote, quote, "I have never been prouder of anything I have done in my professional career."

SUMMERS: OK. Last thing - any sense of who will replace her?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Not yet. She will remain on the job through the end of June, so there is time. This is a presidential appointment. At this point, there is no Senate confirmation process, so President Biden will just have to make his pick.

SUMMERS: OK. We'll all watch and wait. Selena Simmons Duffin, thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.