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Biden picks MGH infectious diseases chief Rochelle Walensky to oversee CDC

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky MD
Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky MD

Massachusetts General Hospital infectious diseases chief Dr. Rochelle Walensky has been picked by President-elect Joe Biden to be the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he announced in a press release Monday morning.

Walensky will replace Dr. Robert Redfield and be charged with rebuilding a troubled federal agency that has been widely regarded as ineffectual in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump’s efforts to downplay it.

She’ll arrive in the role at a critical moment — as the virus surges across the nation and the government prepares to approve and distribute vaccines that may finally bring relief.

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Walensky’s selection was announced along with a number of key members to the Biden-Harris health team, among them the nomination of Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Dr. Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General of the United States. The choice was first reported by Politico.

The post of CDC director does not require Senate confirmation.

Walensky is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, according to an online biography from Harvard. She is also recognized for motivating US policy to promote routine HIV screening and for her work on effective strategies for HIV care in South Africa, according to the biography.

On Sunday night, news of Walensky’s upcoming job leading the nation’s premier health agency was lauded by some of her medical colleagues, including Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center.

Barocas considers Walensky a mentor since he served a fellowship at Mass. General from 2015 to 2018.

Walensky, he said, “looks at health through the lens of not just the absence of disease but also the promotion of well-being.”

“It will be nice to have an actual scientist as the head of the CDC,” Barocas added, “and somebody who has literally committed her entire career to health -- to the health of the community.”

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Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, said she “exclaimed out loud” when she saw the headline about Walensky, with whom she has co-authored journal articles.

“What this country needs right now is strong clinical and public health leadership at the CDC,” Marcus said. She will be able to restore the CDC as the nation’s preeminent public health agency.”

Marcus said anyone who wants to know what to expect from Walensky should watch a video of her testimony before Congress on HIV prevention last year.

“She was fierce and brilliant and a true advocate for HIV prevention in the US in a way I found inspiring,” she said.

Dr. George Q. Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School, said in a statement he was thrilled that Walensky will lead the CDC.

”Dr. Walensky’s frontline clinical expertise and deep research background in the field of infectious diseases renders her supremely qualified to helm the agency, to steer our country past the grim contagion that is COVID-19 and to build our nation’s preparedness for future pandemics,” Daley said.

Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health & HIV policy at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation praised Biden’s choice to lead the CDC.

“She has a long history working on HIV and has, in the past year, become a tour de force in addressing COVID. She’ll take the helm of CDC at perhaps its most critical moment,” Kates said of Walensky.

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Under President Trump, the CDC’s handling of the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic had become politicized.

Redfield, whom Trump picked in 2018 to lead the agency, found himself frequently caught between the political concerns of the president and the public health demands brought on by the pandemic.

The Trump administration buried a CDC report in May that offered local officials guidance on reopening businesses, and in October, the Trump administration installed two political operatives at the CDC who sought to control information the agency released about the coronavirus.

The agency also generated controversy when it published on its website details about how the virus is believed to travel in the air, then reversed course and removed the information, and declared the original posting a mistake. It has since posted another update on how the virus is believed to spread.

Since Trump lost re-election to Biden last month, observers have noted that the CDC has taken more aggressive positions against the pandemic.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control released guidance that called for universal wearing of masks to help prevent spreading COVID-19, broader testing of those without symptoms, and said that exposures to nonessential crowded indoor and outdoor settings pose a “preventable risk to all participants.”

The guidelines specifically highlighted dining inside restaurants as among the “high-risk scenarios.”

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The Walensky choice came as Biden is rounding out his health care team.

He also has picked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be his health secretary.

If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra, 62, will be the first Latino to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a $1-trillion-plus agency with 80,000 employees and a portfolio that includes drugs and vaccines, leading-edge medical research and health insurance programs covering more than 130 million Americans.

Becerra, as the state of California’s top lawyer, has led the coalition of Democratic states defending “Obamacare” from the Trump administration’s latest effort to overturn it, a legal case awaiting a Supreme Court decision next year.

A former senior House Democrat, Becerra was involved in steering the Obama health law through Congress in 2009 and 2010. At the time he would tell reporters that one of his primary motivations was having tens of thousands of uninsured people in his Southern California district.

His mother was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States after marrying his father, a native of Sacramento who had grown up in Mexico.

Biden on Monday also announced other key health care picks.

Businessman Jeff Zients was named as Biden’s White House coronavirus coordinator. An economic adviser to former President Barack Obama, Zients also led the rescue of the HealthCare.gov website after its disastrous launch in 2013. And former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a co-chair of Biden’s coronavirus task force, will be nominated to return to the role.

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Globe correspondents Abigail Feldman and Nick Stoico contributed to this report.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.