The David J. Sencer Museum at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia
The David J. Sencer Museum at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia

CDC Restructuring Aims to Improve Timeliness and Accountability

Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic fell short and outlined plans to reorganize and strengthen its response to future public health threats.

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Christie Wilcox

Christie joined The Scientist's team as newsletter editor in 2021, after more than a decade of science writing. She has a PhD in cell and molecular biology, and her debut book Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry, received widespread acclaim.

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Aug 18, 2022

ABOVE: The David J. Sencer Museum at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia © ISTOCK.COM, HAPABAPA

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon undergo a restructuring, Director Rochelle Walensky announced to staff in an email Wednesday (August 17), according to multiple outlets.

“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 wrote in the email, which was sent to the agency’s more than 11,000 employees, reports STAT. “My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness.”

The Atlanta-based agency, whose mission includes protecting Americans from public health threats, has come under fire for repeated failures during the COVID-19 pandemic response, including distributing contaminated test kits and poor messaging early in the pandemic, and most recently, its ponderous response to the emergence of monkeypox. “We saw during COVID that CDC’s structures, frankly, weren’t designed to take in information, digest it and disseminate it to the public at the speed necessary,” Jason Schwartz, a health policy researcher at the Yale School of Public Health, tells the Associated Press.

The shake-up aims to prevent similar shortcomings in the future by strengthening communication and removing red tape. The agency will increasingly utilize preprint servers (which host papers that haven’t been peer reviewed ) for timely research, for instance, and will ensure that agency leaders dedicate at least six months to each outbreak response in order to prevent knowledge gaps and other issues that have presented during staff turnover, the AP reports. And there are numerous plans to alter the organizational structure, including streamlining the agency’s communications department and adding offices for intergovernmental affairs and health equity. Mary Wakefield, who headed the Health Resources and Services Administration during the Obama administration, has been appointed to implement the changes.

“The actions that are being taken all strike me as actions that make sense and would make C.D.C. a more effective public health agency,” Richard Besser, who directed the agency under the Obama administration, tells The New York Times.

Others express hope that the changes are just one step towards broader changes in the way the federal government handles public health crises. “Can she do it? I don’t know,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University’s School of Public Health, tells the Times. “Does it absolutely need to be done? Yes. Is it just a reorganization that is required? I don’t think so.”

“I hope it’s not the end of the story,” Schwartz tells the AP.