When Dr. Rochelle Walensky began her career at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the mid-1990s, finding ways to take on the HIV/AIDS epidemic was an urgent medical priority. That challenge motivated Walensky to devote her career to the treatment of infectious diseases.
Now, when Walensky becomes the Director of the Centers for Disease Control under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, she’ll be inheriting another health crisis.
Biden tapped Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, to lead the CDC, the Biden transition team announced this week.
Walensky will be the third woman to lead the country’s premier public health agency – and during a pivotal time, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to cripple the US and vaccinations get underway.
“I began my medical career at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and I’ve spent my life ever since working to research, treat, and combat infectious diseases,” she tweeted Monday. “I’m honored to be called to lead the brilliant team at the CDC. We are ready to combat this virus with science and facts.”
She has treated Covid-19 on the frontlines
Walensky has led Massachusetts General Hospital on the front lines of their Covid-19 response since February, when she and her team at the hospital prepared for a surge in coronavirus cases that were, at the time, mostly concentrated on the West Coast.
She shared some of the strategies she and her team implemented in a July webinar with fellow infectious disease experts. These included creating evolving standards of care as the first Covid-19 patients began to arrive, and supporting staff when they had reached their limits.
She has won the support of other physicians
The choice to appoint Walensky has been celebrated by other infectious disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who will stay on as President-elect Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser.
Her commitment to science – and her experience in working on the pandemic front lines – make her an excellent choice to lead the CDC, her fellow physicians say.
Several federal health officials told CNN there was “incredible positive reaction” among CDC staff when Walensky’s appointment was announced. One described her as “brilliant.”
“It’s nice to have an infectious disease doctor this time,” the official told CNN.
She has criticized the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response
Walensky, a CNN medical analyst before her appointment, has criticized the Trump administration’s lack of a Covid-19 containment strategy.
“I worry that this has just been laissez-faire behavior and it’s going to get even worse in the weeks to come,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an October interview.
She has also disagreed with the strategy of pursuing herd immunity, a concept that has been criticized as potentially dangerous and ineffective by infectious disease experts. To achieve herd immunity, healthier people in a population become infected to build up natural immunity among the population – a strategy Walensky said is “destined to fail” in the US.
In the same interview with Tapper, she echoed fears that many other health experts have shared – that illnesses and deaths from other diseases will increase during the pandemic because hospitals have reached capacity with Covid-19 patients.
“Some have called it mass murder, but it’s more than that,” she told Tapper. “Even if you can protect yourself from Covid but you can’t access medical care when you need it, then you can’t protect yourself from other things – heart attacks, strokes and everything else.”
Walensky has also emphasized the importance of wearing masks, saying in a tweet Tuesday that the US will “recover faster if you give the vaccine less work to do when it’s ready.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia contributed to this report.