When Massachusetts General Hospital unexpectedly received 1,000 doses of a scarce new drug to treat COVID-19 last May, the hospital’s infectious diseases chief, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, didn’t feel lucky — she knew it was unfair. Some other hospitals hadn’t gotten any doses at all.
Instead of hoarding the cache for her patients, Walensky helped organize a cooperative effort among the state’s hospitals to ensure the drug, remdesivir, was equitably distributed.
Her penchant for that kind of leadership — empathic, collaborative, and deeply ethical — was one of the reasons medical and public health professionals nationwide rejoiced at President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s decision to name Walensky the next director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“She has a history of standing up for what’s right,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. “She has an impeccable reputation as a scientist, and a communicator, and a leader.”
When news of the appointment leaked Sunday night, Twitter erupted into what one epidemiologist called “public health euphoria” with other medical professionals posting comments such as “Light on the horizon!!!” and “America is incredibly lucky.”
“It’s telling that there hasn’t been a single person in the field who isn’t thrilled by this appointment,” Dr. Rajesh Gandhi, a Mass. General infectious diseases physician and chair of the HIV Medicine Association, said in an interview. “This is not always the case with people named by political forces to leadership positions.”
Walensky, 51, was celebrated as a rigorous, accomplished medical researcher whose grasp of science is matched only by her ability to explain it to anyone.
A poised and lucid public speaker, she has served as a medical analyst for CNN during the pandemic and a frequent source for other news media, bringing clarity and fervor to some of the most important controversies surrounding COVID-19.
Before COVID-19, she was well-known for her work in another frightening pandemic — HIV/AIDS. In announcing the choice Monday the Biden-Harris transition team described her as “an influential scholar whose pioneering research has helped advance the national and global response to HIV/AIDS.”
Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, called Walensky “one of the leaders in the field of HIV, not just practicing medicine but also researching the most cost effective and best ways to implement HIV interventions.”
Walensky is a past chair of Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council at the National Institutes of Health and chair-elect of the HIV Medical Association; she also served as an adviser to both the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programmeon HIV/AIDS, according to the Biden-Harris statement.
“She’s really an advocate for the world,” said Galit Alter, director of the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research. ”She witnessed the devastation of HIV. She saw how the world came together to find solutions. ... She listens to everybody, she integrates the information, and she comes up with solutions based on data, science, numbers. She’s always driven by the hard facts.”
Born in Peabody, Walensky grew up in Maryland, and earned her B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and her M.D from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She lives in Newton with her husband, Dr. Loren D. Walensky, and their three sons. She’s an active member of Temple Emanuel in Newton, where Rabbi Michelle Robinson described her as “deeply beloved.”
Walensky did not reply to requests for an interview, but on Monday she posted a statement on Twitter: “I began my medical career at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and I’ve spent my life ever since working to research, treat, and combat infectious diseases. I’m honored to be called to lead the brilliant team at the CDC. We are ready to combat this virus with science and facts.”
Colleagues believe Walensky was drawn to the field of infectious diseases after witnessing devastation wrought by AIDS, a leading cause of death among young Americans when she graduated from medical school in 1995.
She served her residency in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, where Dr. Katrina Armstrong, then the chief resident and now physician-in-chief at Mass. General, remembers the other interns marveling at Walensky’s ability to remain “completely collected, organized, and got-it-together,” no matter how little sleep she got.
In 1998 and1999, Walensky served as a fellow in the Infectious Disease Training Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Mass. General.
“She was a superstar right from the start,” said Dr. Paul E. Sax, who leads the fellowship at the Brigham. “She rocketed through our system.”
“She’s extremely good at reviewing and analyzing data. That’s an ideal characteristic for someone who’s heading up the CDC,” Sax said.
Pursuing her master’s in public health at Harvard, awarded in 2001, Walensky studied clinical effectiveness, or how to tell which treatments have the most value to individuals and society. It became the focus of the research that would win her renown.
Early in her career, she demonstrated that the extremely expensive medications to treat HIV were still worth the cost because they significantly reduce hospitalizations, illness, and death. Similarly, she showed that easier access HIV tests would save money and lives by prompting earlier treatment.
“She was able to make these cases using data and thinking economically,” said AIDS researcher Dr. Kenneth H. Mayer, medical research director and co-chair of The Fenway Institute. “These kinds of papers are sent to congressional staff and insurers.”
This background, Mayer said, positions Walensky to address the thorny questions that lie ahead about the response to COVID-19, such as determining which COVID-19 tests are most effective, for individuals and the public.
An infectious diseases physician at Mass. General since 2000, she became chief of the division in 2017, the first woman to attain that post at the hospital.
Despite her stature as a physician leader and scientist, Walensky is known for her eagerness to guide junior physicians and share credit for their work.
“She’s always willing to take a few minutes in the hallway to give me advice,” said Dr. Jason H. Wafsy, director of quality and outcomes research at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center, who called Walensky “a wonderful person and wonderful mentor.”
Doctors and public health experts expect Walensky to restore trust in the embattled CDC, whose experts have been sidelined and recommendations overruled by political leaders during the Trump administration.
This will be critically important as COVID-19 vaccines become available, said Dr. Peter L. Slavin, Mass. General president. “I can’t think of a better person to win the trust of the American people about the value of these vaccines,” he said. “Her ability to communicate will be essential.’'
Wafsy called the choice of Walensky “reassuring.”
“She’s the right person to lead our country through the public health crisis of a generation,” he said. “This is the person you want driving the spaceship at the most dangerous moment.”