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COVID global health emergency declared over as CDC director Rochelle Walensky announces her resignation

Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, participates in a panel discussion during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., on May 4, 2022.Lauren Justice/Bloomberg

In what may be the clearest signals yet that COVID-19 is receding, the World Health Organization on Friday declared the disease no longer a global health emergency.

And, just hours later, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a respected Massachusetts infectious disease physician who led the Biden administration’s pandemic response, announced she is stepping down as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on June 30.

“I have never been prouder of anything I have done in my professional career,” Walensky, 54, wrote in her resignation letter to President Biden. She reportedly expressed “mixed emotions” about her decision to leave and her future plans have not been made public.


The news comes just days before federal and state health emergencies in response to the pandemic officially end on May 11. That means the CDC no longer has the authority to collect certain critical data, such as the number of cases and transmission rates, nor will it publish its controversial color-coded map showing community-level COVID cases that many infectious disease specialists said obscured true transmission rates.

On Friday, CDC announced revisions to its data tracking, saying it will concentrate on hospitalizations, deaths, waste water monitoring, and genomic surveillance.

The end of the global public health emergency means countries will now manage COVID like other infectious diseases. But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that the official end of the emergency did not mean COVID was over as a global health threat.

In the United States, Walensky’s exit comes amid a hopeful time in the pandemic: The number of reported new infections and deaths are among the lowest in three years.

“We are in a much better place today than we’ve been almost at any time of the pandemic,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.


But he noted the country is still witnessing 1,000 deaths from COVID every week. “Just because the emergencies have been lifted, doesn’t mean that we’re out in the clear, because I still think that those 1,000 cases a day are people’s loved ones, or moms and dads or brothers and sisters,” he said. “If we can do something [to keep] those cases from occurring, and assuring they don’t die, that’s a huge benefit to society.”

Dr. Kenneth Freedberg,, director of the medical practice evaluation center at Massachusetts General Hospital who collaborated on several HIV projects with Walensky, said it seemed to make sense for her to leave now given the relative calm.

“The [COVID] levels are low, I can see why she would feel like she has accomplished a lot and this would be a good time to transition,” said Freedberg, who had remained in touch with Walensky during her CDC tenure.

Walensky took over as CDC director in January 2021 and weathered a bumpy first year, with critics blasting the agency for confusing guidance about mask-wearing, quarantining, and school reopenings. She inherited an agency reeling from low morale, one that had been pushed aside during the Trump administration.

But former colleagues who worked with Walensky before her stint at the CDC, when she was renowned as an HIV researcher and director of the 70-person infectious disease department at Mass General, gave her high marks Friday for turning around an agency in distress.


“To use a medical expression, she answered the code,” said A. David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, who has written over 80 research papers with Walensky. A code, in health care, is an emergency notification typically announced over a loudspeaker, and usually requires urgent action.

“The nation was coding, the public health infrastructure was coding. I don’t think you could point to another CDC director, ever, who has been presented with those sort of challenges on day one — of a once-in-a lifetime pandemic, public health infrastructure on the verge of collapse, a demoralized agency created by the mess of a White House who didn’t give a damn,” he said. “She did a remarkable job. She has a lot to show for it. She steadied the ship.”

Anne Sosin, policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, at Dartmouth College, was less glowing in her assessment and the road ahead for the CDC.

“Many of us had hoped that we would see a full reset of the pandemic response under this administration,” Sosin said. “The CDC under her leadership has been held hostage by politics.”

Sosin said too often the CDC, at the direction of the White House, appeared to look to polling data and guidance from political consultants in making decisions of major import to public health, such as whether to scale back masking and changing the guidance on isolation from 10 days to 5 after a COVID infection.


“She is an excellent physician and researcher, but that’s not necessarily the making of a leader of a federal agency playing a major policy role during a pandemic,” Sosin said. “I hope we learn from this, but I am not sure we will.”

However, Sosin did credit Walensky for making sorely needed progress at the agency on other important issues, including expediting its system for review and release of scientific data and addressing some of the bureaucratic roadblocks within CDC departments that kept it from responding more quickly to crises.

The job Walensky stepped into was perhaps even harder than originally expected. At the time, the country appeared to be on the cusp of controlling the pandemic, thanks to the introduction of vaccines.

But the challenge of deploying the vaccine was soon compounded by a mix of reluctance and outright opposition from many in the public. The emergence of new variants required constant updating of recommendations. At the same time, the tension between health restrictions to keep the country safe and the economic consequences they wrought was mounting.

“All of those made her job far more challenging than anyone would have imagined,” said Dr. Dan Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who co-runs the MGH/BWH Infectious Diseases Fellowship that Walensky was once involved in.

“And I think she’s done a great job navigating that. But it remains to be seen how much she was able to address the core issues of the agency, such as readiness for the next pandemic,” Kuritzkes said.


While the agency’s quick response to the Mpox outbreak in May 2022 was a promising sign, the agency will have to retain that level of vigor in the future, he said.

“It’s hard to say what someone’s legacy is until you’ve had perspective to see how durable the changes they’ve brought in will be,” Kuritzkes said. “Undoubtedly there is a lot of unfinished business in continuing to restructure CDC and ensure it is on a sound financial footing. That of course depends on Congress, and the willingness of Congress to continue to invest in public health infrastructure.”

Former Mass General president Dr. Peter Slavin, who worked closely with Walensky when she was head of the hospital’s infectious disease unit, said she had instituted a number of positive reforms at the CDC, including pushing the organization to be more nimble responding to infectious disease threats.

“I think she’s moved the needle in an appropriate direction,” Slavin said.

“She’d be the first to say there is a lot more work to be done to get it in the shape it needs to be if, God forbid, we have another public health emergency,” Slavin added. “And it’s only a matter of time before that happens again.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her @GlobeKayLazar. Jessica Bartlett can be reached at Follow her @ByJessBartlett. Felice J. Freyer can be reached at Follow her @felicejfreyer.