CDC director calls for drastic changes at agency following pandemic missteps

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday the agency needed to make drastic changes to respond better and faster to public health emergencies, following missteps during the Covid pandemic.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky described the changes in general terms in an email to CDC employees on Wednesday afternoon. These include an overhaul of how the agency analyzes and shares data, as well as changes to how the CDC quickly communicates information to the public.

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The agency has faced widespread criticism throughout the pandemic for its slow responses and often confusing messages about masking and other mitigation measures.

“In our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Walensky said in a statement.

“My goal is a new culture focused on public health action at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness,” she wrote. “I want us all to do better and that starts with CDC in the lead.”

To achieve this goal, Walensky wrote that the agency needs to share data faster and in a way that speaks to the American public in easy-to-understand language.

It is also expected that leadership changes and reorganizations will occur.

“As we move forward, these changes will require a cultural shift,” the email reads.

Dr. Richard Besser, former acting director of the CDC and current president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said revamping the agency’s public messaging was “absolutely essential.”

“A lot of CDC scientists are really good at doing science, and a lot of responders are really good at responding,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re good at explaining it in a way that will be helpful to the general public.”

It’s potentially a lasting problem for an agency that has often lagged behind in public outreach, said Dr. Mario Ramirez, an emergency physician and former pandemic and emerging threats coordinator under President Barack Obama.

“The real challenge facing the CDC,” Ramirez said on NBC News Now, “is that it’s extremely difficult to communicate complex scientific issues at such speed, faster than the Twittersphere.”

“The margin for error is so small. If you make a mistake in public health, it takes a very long time to regain public trust,” he said.

The announcement follows a review of the agency, launched by Walensky in April, “to refine and modernize” the agency, she wrote in the email to employees. Walensky tapped longtime Department of Health and Human Services official Jim Macrae to lead the review.

“There’s been a loss of trust in the CDC, and to regain trust, you need to be transparent,” Besser said. “That means sharing any findings and explaining why these are the best approaches to address the gaps found.”

Macrae’s full report is expected to be released this week.

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