CDC, under fire, lays out plan to become more nimble and accountable

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The nation’s top public health official committed Wednesday to overhaul the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, promising faster release of scientific findings and easier-to-understand guidance — part of a long-awaited revamp of CDC culture after withering criticism of its response to the coronavirus and monkeypox crises.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told senior leaders and agency employees that she had embraced several recommendations from an internal review that called for a more nimble and better-trained workforce and changing the culture to reward action over publication, among other things.

“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,” she said in a statement. “My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness. ”

Walensky appointed Mary Wakefield, a former deputy health secretary in the Obama administration, to lead the effort, which she cautioned “will take time and engagement at all levels of the organization.” The recommendations were shared on Wednesday morning, first to senior staff and then across the Atlanta-based agency, which employs about 13,000 people, according to a senior CDC official who provided details but was not authorized to speak on the record.

Several changes are already underway. “Work on essentially everything else is launching today,” the official said.

Walensky briefed officials at the White House and the Health and Human Services Department last week about the plans to modernize the agency. “They are supportive,” the official said.

Since the coronavirus pandemic 2½ years ago, the once-storied agency has been under intense fire for its response, from initial delays developing a coronavirus test, to the severe eligibility limits to get tested, to missteps often attributed to Trump meddling. But even under the Biden administration, which appointed Walensky as director, its guidance and decision-making on masking, isolation and quarantine, and booster doses have been repeatedly faulted as slow, opaque and confusing. Consistent criticism has been the agency’s failure to be agile, especially with the analysis and release of real-time data.

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White House officials have also grown frustrated with CDC and other health agencies asking about their response to monkeypox, with patients, physicians and even some administration officials why it was so hard to expedite testing and treatment.

The recommendations for change come from an internal review of CDC’s structure, systems and processes that Walensky ordered this year. It was led by Jim Macrae, the senior official at the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the Health and Human Services department. Macrae interviewed 120 people inside and outside the agency from mid-April to early June, the senior CDC official said.

Wakefield will create an executive council of agency staff that will track progress and report directly to Walensky.

A background briefing document shared with The Washington Post pressing spells out some of CDC’s most problems and proposed solutions.

Some measures, such as new authority to mandate state data reporting, hire people faster and offer competitive salaries to recruit and retain top people, will require action from Congress. Others are internal changes that Walensky can make herself, such as having science and laboratory sciences offices, two key divisions that would be out front on a public health crisis, report directly to her. And some will require negotiations with unions.

The document laid out several issues, including CDC’s lack of nimbleness during public health emergencies. “It takes too long for CDC to publish its data and science for decision-making,” it said.

Agency officials that acknowledge problem and blame it on CDC’s incentive structure for promotions, which puts a premium on publication in agency reports and scientific journals, which delays the release of public health findings, especially during emergencies.

“This whole idea where people say, ‘we don’t want to scoop ourselves and put that information out before we can do an MMWR should be shamed,” said one official who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the practice of holding data back until it is published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “It’s not right. And part of that has to do with the incentive structure within CDC to get promoted.”

One solution under consideration, the briefing document said, is creating an online mechanism for “pre-publication delivery” for faster public health responses.

Another is simply sharing actionable material faster. For example, agency officials do not plan to wait to release a survey CDC is conducting among gay men to determine whether they have changed their behaviors because of the spread of monkeypox, the senior CDC official said.

Wakefield will be in charge of changing CDC culture “by prioritizing and encouraging public health action and impact over the number of scientific publications,” the briefing document says. “Produce data for action (not data for publication).”

The senior official might prompt that such a culture change prompt some at CDC to leave, adding, “there will be some people … who would prefer to work at more of an academic institution and are going to feel like this is not the right fit.”

The changes also include efforts to introduce clarity to the CDC’s guidance documents, which “are confusing and overwhelming,” the document states, underscoring one of the most frequent complaints from consumers.

Recommendations include communicating in plain language, reducing the number and length of guidance documents, including scientific rationales and using FAQs that can be updated in real time.

To strengthen training and avoid burnout, Walensky is considering requiring a minimum of six months rotation for officials leading an emergency response. During the pandemic, some senior staff were exhausted by deployments that lasted longer than six months. It has also been challenging to persuade officials to step away from regular duties to take a tour of duty leading the covid or monkeypox responses.

“Leaving your position, where you’re publishing papers, to lead [an outbreak response]that’s not rewarded right now,” the senior CDC official said.

The agency also plans to create a one-stop shop to help outside groups “navigate the agency and receive timely information,” the document.

In addition, it will set up a new equity office that will work across the agency, including in recruitment and retention of employees of diverse backgrounds.

Dan Diamond contributed to this report.

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