CDC reshuffle pushes toward actionable data transparency, health equity
For two and a half years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been in the spotlight as hundreds of millions of Americans looked to the agency for guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, for much of the public health crisis, the CDC has been more like a deer in the headlights than the starring actor in a well-staged response to the virus’ devastation.
Confusing public health information, backtracking on faulty tests, the politicization of public health guidance, and sluggish sharing of crucial research data with other federal agencies have brought anger, ridicule, and frustration from citizens and healthcare experts alike.
“To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes,” admitted CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky in a video statement widely reported upon by major media outlets. Walensky took the reins as CDC Director in January of 2021 under the new Biden Administration.
“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. It is time for CDC to change.”
Walensky outlined several major actions that will aim to accelerate appropriate data sharing, increase accountability, refocus efforts on public health, and prioritize health equity.
Mary Wakefield, the former Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary in the Obama Administration, will lead the efforts, which include the creation of a new executive council to “determine agency priorities, track progress, and align budget decisions, with a bias toward public health impact,” Walensky explained.
CDC researchers will also work toward speeding up the analysis and release of important data that could influence policy making, she said. Instead of working at the glacial speed of academia and scientific publications, the agency plans to become increasingly nimble and “produce data for action” in the real world.
Along the same lines, the CDC will rethink how it frames public-facing health information. The agency will strive to produce simpler, more concise, and more actionable public health information that is suitable for all health literacy levels. This should make it easier for Americans to understand and follow timely advice for staying safe during future health emergencies.
A newly established office for health equity will supervise these adjustments and help the agency ensure that its actions reflect the diverse US population and the needs of underserved and disadvantaged communities.
Change won’t be easy for the agency, and it won’t necessarily be quick, the CDC acknowledged. “None of these challenges happened overnight,” Walensky said. “The work ahead will take time and engagement at all levels of the organization.”
The reorganization follows similar recognition from other agencies that the nation’s healthcare leadership infrastructure is lacking, and that health equity needs to be a higher priority.
Recently, HHS and the ONC announced an initiative to increase alignment and reduce friction across their areas of responsibility, enhancing the flow of data and better coordinating the continued development of standards-based health IT across the care continuum.
This, too, will have an impact on public health as healthcare organizations are more able to contribute on-the-ground insights to support timelier, more informed, and more equitable action from partners like the CDC.
The continued retooling of the federal landscape bodes well for the American public, which has long struggled with pandemic fatigue despite the ongoing threats. Rebuilding trust in public health leadership and advancing the government’s ability to act quickly and decisively will be crucial for combatting future outbreaks of COVID-19 variants or other novel diseases.
Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry. Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system.