The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday said the agency must make drastic changes to respond better and faster to public health emergencies, following missteps during the Covid pandemic.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky outlined the changes in broad terms in an email to CDC employees Wednesday afternoon. Those 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 messaging on masking and other mitigation measures.
“In our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Walensky said in a statement to the media.
“My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness,” she wrote in the statement. “I want us all to do better and it starts with CDC leading the way.”
To meet that goal, Walensky wrote that the agency must share data faster and in a way that speaks to the American public in easy-to-understand language.
It’s also anticipated that leadership changes and internal reorganizations will occur.
“As we move forward, these changes will require a cultural shift,” the email Walensky sent to employees stated.
Part of that cultural shift requires quick and forward-thinking approaches to handling emerging diseases, said Dr. Ranu Dhillon, a global health physician who works on epidemic responses at the Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
During the Ebola epidemic in 2014 and 2015, for example, Dhillon said he and his team “were adamant about pushing for rapid testing for Ebola, similar to the Covid test,” because they weren’t sure of all of the ways the virus was spreading.
But the CDC dismissed the idea “without data or discussion,” Dhillon said. “It was this thing like, ‘well we’re the CDC. We know better, and it is what it is.'” Walensky was not at the agency at the time.
Dr. Richard Besser, former acting CDC director and current president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said overhauling the agency’s public messaging is “absolutely essential.”
“A lot of the scientists at CDC are really good at doing science, and a lot of the responders are really good at doing response,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re good at explaining it in ways that will be useful to the general public.”
That’s potentially a lasting problem for an agency that’s often been lagging in its public outreach, said Dr. Mario Ramirez, an emergency physician and former pandemic and emerging threats coordinator under President Barack Obama.
“The real challenge that faces CDC,” Ramirez said on NBC News Now, “is that it is extremely difficult to communicate complex scientific issues at a speed that is so fast, 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 CDC needs to be a leader on public health and drive the discussion,” Dhillon said, “rather than be reactive in crisis moments when they’re the ones that we’d ideally love to lead the way.”
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 a longtime official within the Department of Health and Human Services, Jim Macrae, to lead the review.
“There’s been a loss of trust at CDC, and to regain trust, you have to have transparency,” Besser said. “That means sharing all the findings and make the case for why these are the best approaches to addressing the deficiencies that are found.”
Macrae’s full report is expected to be made public sometime this week.