Biden’s no-nonsense CDC director has long used data to save lives

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBUR, NPR and KHN. It can be republished for free.

In early December, Dr. Katy Stephenson was watching TV with her family and was flipping through Twitter when she saw a tweet that made her scream.

“I said, ‘Oh my god!'” She recalled. “Super loud. My children jumped up. My husband looked over. He said, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong, is everything okay?” I said, ‘No, no, it’s the opposite. It is wonderful. That’s great!'”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky had just been recruited to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stephenson is an infectious disease specialist and vaccine scientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Therefore, the news had a special meaning for her and the many cheering colleagues who tweeted their joy. They helped each other during the brutal pandemic year, she said, while feeling like they were getting little or no help from the federal government.

“It was so confusing,” she said. “We didn’t even know what the government was doing. Sometimes it felt like sabotage. As if the federal government had actively tried to mess things up. “

But as the long months turned into a year, Walensky had been at the forefront, said Stephenson, holding on to science and telling the truth.

When Walensky ran the CDC, she promised to keep telling the truth – even if it’s bad news. She told a JAMA Network podcast last month that she would also welcome face-to-face discussions with CDC scientists.

“They have been reduced,” she said. “I think they’re clogged – that science wasn’t heard. This world famous top agency hasn’t really been appreciated in the past four years and has really been significant in the last year so I have to fix this. “

Walensky, 51, has long been a doctor on a mission – first to fight AIDS around the world, and now to prop up the CDC and get the United States through the pandemic. Aside from untangling her agency’s workforce, she vows to address many other challenges by being a major player in vaccine distribution and rebuilding the public health system.

Walensky’s family has a tradition of service, including a grandfather who served in World War II and rose to become brigadier general. And she compares the call she received from the Biden administration to a hospital alarm that goes off when a patient is in cardiac arrest.

“I received a call while on a code,” she told JAMA. “And if someone calls you while on a code, it’s your job to be there to help.”

At Massachusetts General Hospital, where Walensky was the chief of infectious diseases, some of her many admirers now have Answer the Code t-shirts with the initials RPW underneath.

Part of an outpouring of affection in biomedical circles in Boston, the shirts welcomed Walensky’s appointment way beyond that – including a flurry of bouquets of flowers that her husband and three sons accepted after their new job was announced.

“At one point one of my sons said, ‘You know, Dad, we should just open a flower shop at this point,” said Dr. Loren Walensky, the CDC director’s husband.

He studies and treats blood cancer in children at Boston Children’s Hospital and in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And now he could be called the CDC’s “first gentleman”.

He calls Rochelle his “wonder woman” and still remembers the first time he saw her 30 years ago in the cafeteria of the medical school at Johns Hopkins University, where both were students.

“It stood out,” he said. “And one of the reasons it’s noticed is because it’s big. Rochelle is 6 feet tall. “

She also had extraordinary energy and discipline, even then he recalled, “Most of us rolled out of bed and stumbled into the classroom as our first activity of the day, and for Rochelle it was already up and running. For hours with eyes and bushy tail before either of us was ever born. “

After graduating from medical school, Rochelle Walensky trained in a hospital clinic that was so tough it was compared to the Marines. It was the mid-1990s and the AIDS epidemic was raging. She saw many people die. And then, a few years later, she saw the advent of HIV treatments that could save patients – if those patients could have access to testing and care.

Loren Walensky remembers coming home one day and sitting at the kitchen table working on extremely complex math. She began to broaden her focus from patient care to broader issues in order to achieve more equity in health care that could bring more funding and optimal treatment options.

“And it was like going on a switch,” he said, “and she just had this natural talent for this type of testing – if you did X, Y would happen, and if you did X with a little more money, then How would that affect Y? And all of these if-thens. “

She began doing more research, including studying how more patients can be tested and treated for AIDS, even in the poorest countries. One of her best-known works calculated that HIV drugs had given American patients at least 3 million more years of life.

She worked with Dr. Ken Freedberg, a leading expert on how best to spend money in medicine.

“You can’t do everything,” said Freedberg, “and even if you could, you can’t do everything at once. So Rochelle is particularly good at understanding data on treatments, public health and costs, and putting these three sets of data together to understand, “Well, what are we doing? and what are we doing now? ‘”

So when Walensky had a Wonder Woman superpower, he was using data to make decisions and save lives. This analytical skill has proven useful over the past year as she helped guide the pandemic response for her hospital in Boston and for the state of Massachusetts.

She has dealt often – and publicly – with the politics and medicine of the coronavirus, speaking to journalists with a seemingly natural openness that contrasts with the stricter style of some federal officials. In April, when a large number of Covid cases emerged, she acknowledged the pain.

“We are experiencing incredibly sad days,” she said in a spring interview. “But every day we meet the hope and the vision that we can address what lies ahead.”

And in November, she offered a sobering reality check from the front lines of current covid medical treatments: “When I think of the tools of real drugs that benefit people with this disease, it’s pretty sparse,” she said.

Walensky published research on key pandemic topics such as college testing and antibody treatments. And she often weighed in publicly – on Twitter, in newspapers, as well as on radio and television. When asked by CNN whether President Joe Biden’s plan to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days could restore a sense of normalcy, it responded with characteristic dullness – a trait that could cause problems in these polarized times.

“I told you I would tell you the truth,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll feel it then. I think we will have 200 million Americans left after we vaccinate 100 million Americans that we will need to be vaccinated. “

Walensky faces a historic challenge and runs an agency she never worked for.

She has already received a setback for the new CDC guidance on when and how schools to reopen, and she is openly concerned about new, more transferable variants that are spreading nationwide.

Still, colleagues in Boston said they had no doubt that she would manage to move from an infectious disease division with 300 employees to a public health agency of about 13,000.

“I would put myself on the market for them,” said Elizabeth Barks, the administrative director of the infectious diseases division at Mass General. “And I think our entire department would lie down for them in traffic.”

It will be difficult to lead and rebuild the CDC in the midst of a pandemic. But Barks and others, who know Walensky well, said she had clear eyes and was ready to rise to the challenge. She will try a new approach if the first few attempts fail.

Walensky brought a badge from her desk in Boston to the CDC headquarters in Atlanta. It reads: “Hard things are hard.”

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBUR, NPR and KHN.

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