NEW YORK — The head of the nation’s top public health agency on Wednesday announced a shake-up of the organization, intended to make it more nimble.
The planned changes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — CDC leaders call it a “reset”— come amid ongoing criticism of the agency’s response to COVID-19, monkeypox and other public health threats. Changes include changes to the internal staff and measures to accelerate data releases.
The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told the agency’s staff about the changes on Wednesday. It’s a CDC initiative, and was not directed by the White House or other administration officials, she said.
“I feel like it’s my my responsibility to lead this agency to a better place after a really challenging three years,” Walensky told The Associated Press.
With a budget of $12 billion and over 11,000 employees, the CDC is an Atlanta federal agency that protects Americans against disease and other threats to public health. It’s customary for each CDC director to do some reorganizing, but Walensky’s action comes amid a wider demand for change.
Long-standing criticisms of the agency have been directed at its slow response to new threats and their focus on analysis rather than collection. However, public dissatisfaction with CDC grew significantly during the COVID-19 outbreak. Experts claimed that the CDC had been slow in recognizing how widespread the virus was from Europe. This led them to suggest masks for people to wear to warn of possible spread and increase the frequency of testing for new strains.
“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,” said Jason Schwartz, a health policy researcher at the Yale School of Public Health.
Walensky became the director of the agency in January 2021. However, she has said for a long time that it needs to communicate faster and move more efficiently, although her mistakes have not stopped during her tenure.
Her April call for an in-depth examination of the agency led to her requesting the changes. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services has to approve her proposal for reorganization. CDC officials claim that they plan to finalize and approve a complete package of changes before the start of next year.
While some changes are still being made, steps were announced Wednesday.
—Increasing use of preprint scientific reports to get out actionable data, instead of waiting for research to go through peer review and publication by the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
—Restructuring the agency’s communications office and further revamping CDC websites to make the agency’s guidance for the public more clear and easier to find.
—Altering the length of time agency leaders are devoted to outbreak responses to a minimum of six months — an effort to address a turnover problem that at times caused knowledge gaps and affected the agency’s communications.
—Creation of a new executive council to help Walensky set strategy and priorities.
—Appointing Mary Wakefield as senior counselor to implement the changes. Wakefield was the head of the Health Resources and Services Administration under the Obama administration and served as No. 2 administrator at HHS. Wakefield, 68, started Monday.
—Altering the agency’s organization chart to undo some changes made during the Trump administration.
—Establishing an office of intergovernmental affairs to smooth partnerships with other agencies, as well as a higher-level office on health equity.
Walensky also said she intends to “get rid of some of the reporting layers that exist, and I’d like to work to break down some of the silos.” She did not say exactly what that may entail, but emphasized that the overall changes are less about redrawing the organization chart than rethinking how the CDC does business and motivates staff.
“This will not be simply moving boxes” on the organization chart, she said.
Schwartz stated that flaws in federal responses go well beyond the CDC because of the involvement of the White House, and other agencies.
A CDC reorganization is a positive step but “I hope it’s not the end of the story,” Schwartz said. He would like to see “a broader accounting” of how the federal government handles health crises.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. All content is the sole responsibility of the Associated Press.
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