The head of the nation’s top public health agency announced Wednesday a shakeup of the system, saying it was falling short in responding to COVID-19 and needed to be more nimble.
Planned changes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — CDC leaders call it a “reset.”The Agency’s Response to COVID-19 and other public health threats. The changes include internal staff moves and steps to speed up data releases.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told the agency’s staff about the changes Wednesday. This is a CDC initiative, he said, and is not directed by the White House or other administration officials.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to lead this company to a better place after three very challenging years,” Walensky told The Associated Press.
The Atlanta-based agency, with a $12 billion budget and more than 11,000 employees, is charged with protecting Americans from disease outbreaks and other public health threats. Every CDC director has done some restructuring, but Walensky’s move comes amid a broader call for change.
“I think our public health infrastructure in the country is not up to the task of handling this epidemic,” Walensky told CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. John Labook. “We’ve learned some hard lessons over the last three years, and part of it is my responsibility to learn from those lessons and do better, which is the agency’s responsibility.”
The agency has long been criticized for being too smart, focusing on data collection and analysis, but not acting quickly enough against new health threats. Public dissatisfaction with the agency grew dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts said the CDC has been slow to identify how much of the virus is entering the U.S. from Europe, recommend people wear masks, say the virus can spread through the air, and increase systematic testing for new variants.
“We saw during COVID that the CDC’s structures, obviously, were not designed to take in information, digest it and disseminate it to the public at the speed needed,” said Jason Schwartz, a health policy researcher at the Yale School of Public Health.
Walensky, who became director in January 2021, has long said the company needs to move faster and communicate better, but hiccups continued during his tenure. In April, he called for an in-depth review of the agency, which resulted in the announced changes.
“It’s not lost on me that we’ve failed in so many ways,” Walenski said in response to the coronavirus. “We’ve had some pretty public mistakes, and a big part of this effort is to raise the mirror … to understand where and how we can do better.”
He told CBS News that the agency should have “special forces” deployed during pandemics.
“I have no doubt that they are up to the task,” he told Labouque.
His reorganization proposal must be approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. CDC officials say they hope to have the full set of changes finalized, approved and implemented by early next year.
Some of the changes are still being designed, but the steps announced Wednesday include:
- Rather than waiting for research through peer review and publication through the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the use of preprinted scientific reports to obtain actionable data is increasing.
- Reorganize the agency’s Office of Communications and further update CDC websites to make agency guidance more clear and easy to find for the public.
- Changing the length of time agency leaders dedicate to outbreak responses — at least six months — is an attempt to address the problem of turnover that has sometimes created knowledge gaps and affected agency communications.
- Creating a new executive council to help Walensky set strategy and priorities.
- Appointing Mary Wakefield as senior advisor to implement changes. Wakefield was the head of the Health Resources and Services Administration during the Obama administration and was the No. 2 also worked as administrator. Wakefield, 68, started Monday.
- Altering the agency’s organizational chart to undo some of the changes made during the Trump administration.
- Establish an Office of Intergovernmental Affairs for smooth partnerships with other agencies, as well as a high-level office on health equity.
Walensky said, “I want to remove some of the existing reporting layers and work to break down some of the silos.” He didn’t say exactly what that would be, but insisted the overall changes would be less about reshaping the organizational chart than rethinking how CDC does business and motivates employees.
“It’s not just going to be moving boxes” on the organizational chart, he said.
Schwartz said the shortcomings in the federal response went beyond the CDC, as the White House and other agencies were heavily involved.
While he said the restructuring was a positive step, he added, “I believe this is not the end of the story.” He said he wants to see a “broad accounting” of how the federal government is handling health crises.
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