Less than three weeks have passed since Alex Azar was confirmed as the new U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services. One of the most important decisions he’ll make during his tenure already looms:
Who will lead the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)?
There is no room for error on this decision. The last CDC director, Brenda Fitzgerald, departed in January in a cloud of scandal over the conflicts posed by her public health post and her personal tobacco investments. The CDC is one of the world’s premier disease-fighting organizations but it faces severe headwinds in Congress for the funding needed to battle epidemics abroad, recruit expert staff and maintain its laboratories’ leading-edge technology.
Minnesotans have a large stake in Azar making a strong choice. Grants from the agency play a key role in funding state public health efforts. In 2016, the state Department of Health received $65.3 million for its work. Other Minnesota health organizations received $10.8 million that year. Cutbacks at CDC could put this important work at risk.
The state’s world-class medical providers and the Health Department’s own disease detectives also recognize the value of teamwork in fighting outbreaks. The CDC is a critical partner to state and local health agencies in gathering information and providing the laboratory firepower needed to identify epidemics and stop their spread.
Azar should reach out for advice on this decision. And when he does, he should hear that the next CDC leader needs a rare combination of skills. Impeccable science credentials are a must to guide the agency’s work and inspire its staff. Also critical: the ability to navigate challenging political waters and generate broad support for the agency.
To do that, the new leader needs to be a stellar communicator — one who not only breaks down science for a general audience but also wins over people during an era when science itself is often under fire. Congress has a regrettable number of politicians who regularly scoff at climate change data, but their votes are critical in keeping the CDC robustly funded. The CDC’s next leader needs to explain the agency’s needs and enlist congressional support for its vital global mission.
“The sooner we can find a problem emerging anywhere in the world, the better the chance to keep it from going everywhere in the world,” said former Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm. Osterholm, who is respected internationally for his expertise and his charismatic speaking style, is an example of a leader with the skills the CDC needs right now.
The interim CDC director, Dr. Anne Schuchat, is admired inside and outside of the agency. She also would be a solid pick, especially because Azar may have difficulty recruiting a top scientist to work in the Trump administration. Azar, a former drug company executive, was a controversial choice to replace Dr. Tom Price as HHS secretary. Getting the CDC decision right would build confidence in his leadership.