Posted 115 days ago
‘The CDC alone can’t fix this’: Walensky calls for overhaul of U. S. public health system
If the pandemic is to turn endemic — a situation top Biden health officials say they could more easily control — the U.S. needs to overhaul the nation’s public health workforce, she said.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press on Dec. 8 in Atlanta. | Brynn Anderson/AP Photo
The U.S. needs to rethink its approach to tackling Covid-19 by rebuilding the nation’s public health system, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in an interview with POLITICO.
It’s been a year since Walensky took over the public health agency and the country has gone through a vaccine rollout, seen variants emerge and witnessed three massive surges. To Walensky, the pandemic shows no signs of vanishing. This week, an average of 740,000 infections were reported each day. On Thursday, the day she spoke with POLITICO, more than 2,400 people were reported as having died from Covid-19.
Now, as the pandemic enters the third year, she said the CDC needs help to fight Covid-19. If the pandemic is to turn endemic — a situation top Biden health officials say they could more easily control — the U.S. needs to overhaul the nation’s public health workforce, she said.
“I actually really think many people have thought, this is CDC’s responsibility, to fix public health [and] the pandemic,” Walensky said. “The CDC alone can't fix this. Businesses have to help, the government has to help, school systems have to help. This is too big for the CDC alone,” she said.
Walensky has been more out front detailing her agenda following weeks of sharp criticism of the CDC’s recent guidelines on isolation and quarantine, and its vaccination data gaps. Since then, Walensky has engaged in numerous interviews and hosted the agency’s first solo press call since the Trump administration ended them. But she and the CDC still face criticism for confusing public messaging and the agency’s inability to more quickly track critical Covid data.
The CDC director called for broadscale investment in public health — including helping to hire more nurses locally, staffing emergency departments and recruiting statisticians and data crunchers. Walensky’s focus on strengthening public health offices underscores the extent to which she thinks the CDC must improve its federal response by revitalizing the local and state health systems it relies upon.
Her shift in strategy comes as the Biden administration scrambles to safeguard the nation against Covid-19 and keep the economy afloat as it prepares for the possibility of new, more-transmissible variants.
“I would love to say I know exactly where we are because I think people really do want to know,” Walensky said. “But the most important thing that we can say is that we don't know exactly where we're heading.”
Health officials have long tried to draw more attention and funding from Congress to prop up the public health sector, which Walensky said has lost nearly 80,00 workers in the last 10 years. Former CDC officials, including Tom Frieden, the agency's director under President Barack Obama, prioritized funding to improve how state public health offices received and analyzed laboratory reports. Still, data-collection problems persisted as public health officials continued to leave their jobs.
Walensky said she thinks Covid-19 might be the catalyst for change.
“Ebola didn't touch everyone. Zika didn't touch everyone. Even during those what I would call public health crises, people didn't always know what the CDC stood for. People were not talking about science on the nightly news,” Walensky said. “And I think this pandemic has by far touched everyone every day for the last two years. And I think people have realized that we can't be in this place again.”
Congress has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to the CDC over the past two years — much of which the agency distributed to states to help improve their data systems and analytics, and to hire more staff to handle the workload. But the CDC needs more funding to do what Walensky is envisioning. According to interviews with dozens of state public health officials, tens of billions of dollars are necessary to rebuild just the nation’s data systems and reporting processes.
“One could say you could dump money into a system and try and get it to work better. But you can't. You can't create a workforce. You have to upskill the workforce,” she said. “We need to train it. We need to make public health an attractive workforce to enter.”
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