When Biden appointed Rochelle Walensky to head the CDC, we were alone in predicting she would not be up to the task of turning the Atlanta-based agency around. With the benefit of hindsight, our take was far too kind. The cost of her misrule has been high.
We could give you figures, but since the CDC, which was supposed to be a data shop, is trying to get out of that business, we’ll deal as they do in narrative:
The CDC might as well rename itself the Centers for Disease Circulation.
There are more documented COVID deaths in the US than in any other country, so America's "public health experts" get first prize for medical negligence and reckless endangerment. https://t.co/Ub2uUTLhyD
— Tom Carter (@CarterWSWS) August 13, 2022
We’re going to spare you a full rap sheet but consider: Walensky herself misled the public by saying “fully vaccinated people do not carry the virus.” The agency took a vax-only policy, refusing to take aerosols seriously, continuing to push fomites and deep cleaning theater well after that was known to be unimportant, ignored ventilation and actively discouraged masking by denigrating masks as a scarlet letter that would remind people that a pandemic was still on, as if feelers were more important than lives:
Healthy or immunocompromised, no one should be shamed for masking. @CDCDirector and her incredibly damaging comment that "the Scarlet letter of the pandemic is the mask" has emboldened even more people to harass & deride anyone wearing a mask now. https://t.co/5HDfAsHH5I
— LongCovidPharmD (@organichemusic) August 14, 2022
Yesterday Walensky ate some crow in admitting the CDC had preformed poorly. But she’s not willing to quit, which is the only hope for the agency to shape up. We are far from alone in thinking she needs to go. Note that there are a surprisingly high number of tweets, both by those medically adjacent as well as what seem like ordinary but interested citizens, which suggests widespread antipathy:
14) In the end, the BUCK STOPS WITH THE @CDCDIRECTOR. It is really weird that she never faults herself— just blames the rest of the agency asking for its overhaul— but doesn’t mention change needed at the top https://t.co/4SdZd9S9MK
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) August 17, 2022
— Elizabeth Jacobs, PhD 🏴☠️ (@TheAngryEpi) August 17, 2022
Whatever you think about Fauci, at least that narcissistic garden gnome gives interviews regularly allowing discerning people insight into his devious and devilish incompetence.
Walensky, like Kamala, can't convey even basic ideas and is kept out of harm's way by her handlers. https://t.co/1uuK0wIHPb
— Rising serpent 🇺🇸 (@rising_serpent) August 18, 2022
Any overhaul of the @CDCgov that actually seeks to be effective must necessarily remove Rochelle @CDCDirector and replace her with an actual public health professional, NOT a clinician, that is loyal to the public’s health, not CEOs https://t.co/zPW4jye8fE
— Adam J. Moore, MPH (@AJMooreHealth) August 17, 2022
Wow. That’s big of you @CDCgov @CDCDirector . “Maybe kids shouldn’t be punished for wearing masks.” That’s some “courageous leadership” on your part. Letting kids get away with “the scarlet letter.” https://t.co/Yt4RMwKFJR
— Kathleen (@MeKathleen) August 13, 2022
Her fix up plan amounts to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and confirms her lack of needed leadership chops, most of all, the willingness to admit failure, here personal failure, and not mere “mistakes”.
Aside from the her performance failures, if CDC employment levels have dropped as far as media stories over time suggest, the agency has hemorrhaged staff and requires the equivalent of ICU care.
Press reports in early 2021, shortly after Walensky joined, said the agency had 21,000 employees. I recounted that figure in my January 2021 post and there are plenty of 2020 and 2021 articles that confirm that staffing level (see the Wall Street Journal, Medpage Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The current batch of stories say 11,000 (see New York Times, NBC, NPR). If that’s accurate and headcount at the CDC has collapsed to that degree, the agency is falling apart. Walensky would need to go if so because it happened on her watch and new leadership would be essential to have any hope of righting the ship.
Walensky made the rounds with the press about the CDC revamp, but both her admission of culpability and the discussion of the turnaround plan were suitably vague. First from the Financial Times:
The director of the top US public health agency has admitted the organisation made some “pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes” in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and unveiled a shake-up of personnel and policies designed to improve its response to emergency situations.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Wednesday the planned reforms would improve accountability and “timeliness of response” at the agency, which is responsible for protecting Americans from disease and other public health threats.
The CDC’s handling of the pandemic has come under stinging criticism from some health experts who contend it has become overly politicised and failed to collect important data needed to slow the spread of Covid or promote rapid testing.
More recently, critics have expressed concerns about the agency’s slow initial response to the spread of monkeypox, which was declared a public health emergency in the US this month.
What is telling is that the pink paper says Walensky established a review in April to make recommendations. The text above suggests that data collection and publication were known lapses. Yet from April onward, the agency was further cutting its reports.
Here is the CBS version:
The head of the nation’s top public health agency on Wednesday announced a shake-up of the organization, saying it fell short responding to COVID-19 and needs to become more nimble.
The planned changes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — CDC leaders call it a “reset”— come amid criticism of the agency’s response to COVID-19, monkeypox and other public health threats. The changes include internal staffing moves and steps to speed up 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.
“Nimble” and “reset” are MBA speak and suggest that whatever this fix-up process is about, it’s not operationally-focused enough to do much good. And it’s not hard to infer that Walensky knew her days were numbered unless she at least appeared to be getting in front of the problem. Of course, that’s a wee bit difficult when you are the problem.
The crumbs at the Financial Times are similarly troubling:
The CDC has selected Mary Wakefield, a former acting deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, to lead a team to implement the reform programme. It will create an executive council to determine agency priorities, track progress and align budget decisions, with a focus on public health impact.
It will also create a one-stop shop for external partners to interact with the agency, according to an outline of the plan.
If you want to effect fundamental change at an organization, it has to come from the top. A management committee, no matter how glorified the label, is too removed from line authority and intel on what is happening on a day to day basis to be much more than a generator of Power Point fig leaves.
Instead, Walensky’s “restart” is a half-hearted version of CEO life extension ploys: shake things up and then use that to argue it can’t yet be determined if you are turning things around. One analogue is former HP CEO Carly Fiorina’s acquisition of Compaq, which was widely expected and proved to be a disaster. Fiorina was on a path to ouster otherwise. She managed to get shareholder approval for the Compaq buy despite it being well understood that the main reason for doing the deal was Fiorina’s desire to hang on. Most thought she’d wind up being given another two years to see if Compaq worked out.
This sorry outcome should come as no surprise. The short version of Walensky’s tenure is that she came in with great fanfare after the CDC has performed shambolically, losing months of time early in the pandemic by botching its own test kit and not letting other organizations fill the gap. There was a lot of predictable Trump-blaming, but the test fiasco rests entirely at the CDC’s feet, as does its pre-existing reputation for poor performance.
Note that if you read the patter at the time of Walensky’s elevation, her job was to get 100 million people vaccinated (and related to that, make headway in combatting vax resistance) and improve the image of the agency. These were not even remotely public health goals.
We pointed out what should have been obvious: Walensky was not remotely qualified. Oh, she’s been in and around public health. She was touted as being the head of infectious diseases at the prestigious Mass General. She was an early AIDS researcher. She’s been on some important state advisory committees and so presumably gave good meeting. As we wrote in 2021:
Magnitude of CDC role relative to Dr. Walensky’s previous experience. Walensky has never managed a bureaucracy the size of the CDC, which has 21,000 employees. It’s a little troubling that there is no “infectious diseases” department on the Mass General org chart from June 2019.2 That confirms the concern that she does not have a history of running a large or even a not-so-large operation. Nor has she designed or overseen the implementation of large-scale program. This challenge is even more daunting given the need for rapid execution to accelerate vaccine distribution….
And keep in mind another issue: Dr. Walensky is going from an elite organization to one where she’ll deal with top managers and numerous important outside constituencies who won’t be at the same level, intellectually and likely in terms of professionalism, of her former colleagues. This is another difficult adjustment.
Bluntly, that “infectious diseases” effort at Mass General didn’t even rate a box on its very busy org chart, suggesting Walesky hadn’t managed anything much bigger than her desk and some research teams of postdocs.
Of course, the entire Biden Administration is so weak that Walensky’s glaring inadequacies do not stand out. But they are far more consequential than those of Pete Buttigieg at the Department of Transportation. The fact that the US is the world leader in per capita Covid deaths is reason alone for Walensky to be run out of town on a rail.