President-elect Joseph Biden has named Rochelle Walensky, chief of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, as the new administration’s director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Walensky, who became an expert in viral testing, prevention, and treatment through her work against AIDS, said in a Monday morning tweet that she is honored to begin work at the CDC and eager to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
“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. “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.”
Walensky will take over one of the world’s premier infectious disease institutions at a time of both hope and concern. The U.S. coronavirus pandemic is reaching new depths even as hope rises for a vaccine that can bring it to an end in the coming months. Currently led by Robert Redfield, the CDC has been criticized for its low profile during the pandemic and for failing to stand up to political pressure on coronavirus recommendations. The pandemic’s most prominent government scientist, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, was named chief medical adviser on COVID-19 to the incoming president.
Neither of these roles require Senate confirmation.
During a recent Facebook Live event on the prospects for a coronavirus vaccine, sponsored by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Walensky, who has an M.P.H. from the Chan School, detailed the complexity of the task ahead, saying there are “substantial challenges” in distributing a coronavirus vaccine.
Among the challenges she listed are the fact that a quarter of Americans don’t have a primary care physician to guide their care, logistical issues such as the two leading vaccine candidates needing very cold temperatures for storage, and the fact that even an early wave of vaccinations of health care and other front-line workers will be substantial, with roughly 80 million people needing two doses each.
Born in Peabody, Mass., Walensky received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Washington University and her M.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is married to Loren Walensky, who is a pediatric oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Harvard/MIT M.D.-Ph.D. Program. The couple has three sons.
Walensky’s appointment comes as Biden continues to fill out his health care team. He selected California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC, and Vivek Murthy, who received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College, as surgeon general.