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CDC director to depart in June

She leaves a week before the Biden administration winds down the public health emergency

Rochelle Walensky, who announced she is leaving her job as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is shown testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in June 2022.
Rochelle Walensky, who announced she is leaving her job as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is shown testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in June 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky will leave her post at the end of June, the agency announced on Friday, after a controversial two years of leading the agency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement of her departure comes a week before the Biden administration is set to wind down the COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11.

“The end of the COVID-19 public health emergency marks a tremendous transition for our country, for public health, and in my tenure as CDC Director,” Walensky said in a statement. “I took on this role, at your request, with the goal of leaving behind the dark days of the pandemic and moving CDC — and public health — forward into a much better and more trusted place.”

Walensky was an unusually high-profile CDC director, serving during a time when Americans were extremely focused on the agency and the country dealt with two infectious disease outbreaks: COVID-19 and mpox.

Public mistrust of public health institutions was a hallmark of her tenure, and she was routinely criticized by Republicans for the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including for keeping schools closed too long and for inconsistent guidelines surrounding masking. Public trust in the CDC steadily declined between December 2020 and April 2022, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Walensky continuously said that the science on the virus was evolving in real time and worked to increase the CDC’s public communication. Earlier this year she announced an effort to reorganize the agency, bolstering its outreach and transparency.

During her time at the CDC, Walensky advocated expanding the agency’s data collecting authorities and capabilities. But the pleas largely fell on deaf ears, as congressional Republicans say they want more oversight in the wake of the pandemic.

Her service was praised by President Joe Biden, who released a statement saying Walensky led the front lines of the pandemic “with honesty and integrity.”

“Dr. Walensky leaves CDC a stronger institution, better positioned to confront health threats and protect Americans,” he said.

Before joining the CDC, Walensky served as chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Her spokesperson would not say what she plans to do next.

Pandemic preparedness reauthorization

Walensky leaves at a crucial time for the agency, even after the public health emergency ends. Congress is gearing up to reauthorize a critical pandemic preparedness bill that will expire in September, and Walensky has been lobbying lawmakers and reporters on what she says are critical data and salary authorities that the agency needs.

The data debate could get messy. Some Republicans are reluctant to hand more powers to the CDC in the wake of the pandemic. A broad data bill previously endorsed by Walensky was jettisoned in favor of limited data-sharing provisions in the 2023 spending law.

CDC has also faced criticism from public health advocacy and industry lobbying groups over its inability to create an interoperable data exchange as called for under the original 2006 pandemic law. The CDC, however, points to a Government Accountability Office report that partly blamed the Department of Health and Human Services for the lack of standardization in data collection.

Walensky’s departure comes at a time when the National Institutes of Health doesn’t have a permanent director, although that could change by the time Walensky leaves in June.

The White House is expected to soon nominate National Cancer Institute Director Monica Bertagnolli to lead the NIH, a position that has been open since December 2021, when longtime director Francis Collins retired.

Unlike the eventual nominee to lead the NIH, the CDC director is not yet a Senate-confirmed position. The recent omnibus bill included a requirement that the Senate confirm the CDC director, but that mandate doesn’t go into effect until January 2025.

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