The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is undergoing a shake-up amid criticism over its guidance for fully vaccinated adults, according to reporting by Politico. So far, two high-profile officials have announced their departure from the agency during the ongoing changes.
On May 7, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s top respiratory disease scientist who helped lead the agency’s response to the pandemic, announced her resignation effective May 14. Messonnier announced her departure just two weeks after new CDC director Rochelle Walensky restructured the CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, which Messonnier had headed.
According to Politico, the restructuring meant Messonnier, who had been operating semi-autonomously, would now have to report to CDC’s incident response team overseen by Henry Walke, director of the agency’s Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections. (Dr. Walke, in turn, reports to Walensky.) Amid the change, Messonnier took an “unplanned vacation” from the agency before announcing her resignation.
Messonnier had been with the CDC for more than 20 years and held a number of leadership positions. In the early days of the pandemic, Messonnier held regular press briefings on the state of the pandemic, offering frank guidance and information. She was launched into the national spotlight in late February 2020 after delivering a stark warning that “disruption to everyday life may be severe” amid the pandemic. The warning contradicted then-President Donald Trump’s rosier outlook. Shortly afterward, she disappeared from public view, and CDC press briefings were discontinued.
Messonnier will begin a new role as executive director for Pandemics and Health Systems for the philanthropic Skoll Foundation.
The second departure is of Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director. Yesterday, the CDC confirmed that Schuchat, a more than 30-year veteran with the agency, is retiring at 61.
In an interview with STAT news, Schuchat said she had been thinking of retirement for some time. “We’re certainly in the United States are in a much better position than we’ve been, really, since last spring. And the vaccination effort has really been extraordinary,” Schuchat told the outlet. “I feel so optimistic about CDC’s future and the nation’s public health system that this is the right time for me to move on.”
Meanwhile, Walensky has reshuffled several other CDC task forces in recent weeks. Since Messonnier’s restructuring, Walke—head of CDC’s incident response team—has been in charge of the next phase of vaccine guidance. Just as Messonnier was leaving, the agency announced May 13 an abrupt reversal on mask use for fully vaccinated Americans. While the agency’s previous mask guidance for the fully vaccinated had faced criticism for being too slow and conservative, the latest guidance was criticized for being too abrupt and incomplete.
According to Politico, several senior White House officials, even some on the White House COVID-19 task force, were unaware of the updated guidance until the morning of the announcement.
Overall, the changes Walensky is putting in place at the agency will strengthen the authority of the CDC director and the agency’s independence. A senior Biden administration health official described the CDC’s reshuffle to Politico as “a long time coming.”
“When Biden entered office, there were some very early conversations about how the CDC was going to be handled… who was going to lead it and what it needed to do to get back on track,” the senior health official said. “Dr. Walensky was chosen for the top job and was highly sought-after. But I think it is fair to say there have been some hiccups over the last few months that have created some tensions within the agency. And I think we’re starting to see the CDC director make some moves to change things.”