Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is leaving her government post, the agency and President Joe Biden announced Friday.
Walensky’s last day on the job will be June 30, according to an email sent to CDC employees Friday, which was shared with CNN.
In a statement, Biden thanked Walensky for leading “a complex organization on the frontlines of a once-in-a-generation pandemic with honesty and integrity” and wished her well in her next chapter.
“Dr. Walensky leaves CDC a stronger institution, better positioned to confront health threats and protect Americans. We have all benefited from her service and dedication to public health, and I wish her the best in her next chapter,” Biden said.
Walensky said in a letter to Biden that the agency “saved and improved lives and protected the country and the world from the greatest infectious disease threat we have seen in over 100 years.”
“The end of the COVID-19 public health emergency marks a tremendous transition for our country, for public health, and in my tenure as CDC Director,” she wrote. “I took on this role, at your request, with the goal of leaving behind the dark days of the pandemic and moving CDC – and public health – forward into a much better and more trusted place.”
Beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC under Walensky also responded to health crises such as outbreaks of Ebola in Uganda and mpox in nations around the world.
“Rochelle Walensky has been an extraordinary leader and a terrific partner,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s Covid-19 response team leader, said Friday on Twitter. “She has done the critical work of launching major reforms to ensure we have an even more effective CDC.”
Last year, after acknowledging missteps in its response to Covid-19, the CDC underwent an independent review of those efforts as well as close examinations of its operations. In August, Walensky laid out a sweeping plan to overhaul how the agency works and remake the culture so it can respond more quickly to health problems.
“My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness,” she said in a statement at the time.
Part of Walensky’s plan involved asking Congress for new flexibilities in funding and new powers such as mandates that jurisdictions share health data.
“Changes are under way on everything from expanding the number of staff who are ready to respond to a disease outbreak to the implementation of plain language trainings to the overhaul of CDC’s website, so that it’s easier for people to find the public health information they need,” Friday’s CDC statement notes.
“While at CDC, I had the true gift of meeting, working with, and giving voice to thousands of people at the agency who work 24/7 to worry about health and public health so that the rest of the nation does not have to,” Walensky said in the statement. “I have never been prouder of anything I have done in my professional career.”
Before joining the CDC, Walensky was chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The Maryland native was also chair of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council, chair-elect of the HIV Medical Association and an adviser to the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
“Here is the analogy I would make about Dr. Walensky’s tenure at the CDC,” Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told CNN on Friday.
“Ed Asner, probably best known for his role on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ said that when he was a young actor, he had a confrontation on the set of a movie with John Wayne. There was a scene in which Asner was supposed to toss Wayne something to catch. He threw it in a way that Wayne could only look awkward catching it.
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“I think this is what happened to Dr. Walensky, who is a wonderful clinical researcher and teacher but was thrown a ball in a manner in which she could only look awkward catching it,” Offit said.
“Nonetheless, Dr. Walensky did the best she could to explain Covid-19 and Covid-19 vaccines to the public. No one was more empathetic on national television than she was. You could see the pain that we were all suffering during this pandemic on her face. We were lucky to have Dr. Walensky. I’m sorry to see that she will be leaving.”
CNN’s Brenda Goodman, Meg Tirrell, John Bonifield and Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.