Just a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its quarantine and social distancing recommendations for COVID-19, the agency announced an overhaul aimed at addressing the myriad missteps in its pandemic response.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the agency hoped to “transform” itself from an organization that focuses on scientific papers to one that more effectively gathers public health data and communicates about imminent threats.
“For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for COVID-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Walensky said. “As a long-time admirer of this agency and a champion for public health, I want us all to do better.”
The CDC’s communications bungles included confusing messages over masking guidance. In May 2021, the agency said fully vaccinated people could go without wearing a mask; it reversed those recommendations two months later after a COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts.
The agency was criticized for the slow rollout of the at-home testing kits during the Omicron spike at the end of 2021. After that, it took heat for shortening its quarantine guidelines, even as the virus raged.
The CDC overhaul comes after Walensky announced in April that the agency would conduct an internal review of its practices. That review was led by Jim Macrae, associate administrator for primary healthcare at the Health Resources and Services Administration, and included 120 interviews with CDC staffers and outside experts.
A second review, led by CDC chief of staff Sherri Berger, found that the agency’s “traditional scientific and communication processes were not adequate to effectively respond to a crisis the size and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the agency noted in a statement.
The reviews concluded that the CDC needed to communicate more transparently, and in a manner more easily understood by the general public. They also noted that the agency needed to better incentivize its staff to respond to public health crises.
But even with the overhaul announcement, the CDC’s problems continue — and its pandemic-related communications remain opaque at best and incoherent at worst. Most recently, the agency’s decision to drop quarantine recommendations altogether — and suggest that people who have been exposed to the virus should wear a high-quality mask for 10 days and get tested on day five — sparked additional debate, and further confused the public.
Then there was the CDC’s recent handling of monkeypox and polio, which included the delayed release of information about both viruses.
As part of her announcement about the revamp, Walensky outlined several priorities. She wants the agency to receive additional authority (and funding) from Congress to mandate data-sharing among states and jurisdictions. This would require an upgrade of the CDC’s data systems.
Whether the agency will actually receive any additional money is another story, given the country’s track record of not investing in public health until a crisis happens. One recent report found that the U.S. government would need $36.7 billion to modernize its public health infrastructure over the course of the next decade.
Finally, the CDC plans to streamline its website, install a new executive council and create an equity office. HHS deputy secretary Mary Wakefield has been appointed to head the team that will oversee the changes.