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Who Is Rochelle Walensky, Biden's Pick For CDC Director?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is usually out front during a public health crisis. But with the coronavirus pandemic, the agency has been relatively quiet. It's been sidelined and muzzled. Its reputation has been tarnished, and morale at the agency is at a low. Well, CDC is getting a new leader. President-elect Biden has picked Dr. Rochelle Walensky for the job. And NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here with more details.

Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So Walensky isn't a name a lot of Americans know. Can you just tell us a little more about her?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, she's an infectious disease doctor with a public health degree. Her career has really been spent on HIV. And currently, she runs the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital, and she's a professor of medicine at Harvard. And honestly, I've called a lot of people she's worked with who know her, and not a single person had a bad word to say about her.

Dr. Ada Adimora knows Walensky well. She's an infectious disease physician and professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. And here is what she said when I asked her about her reaction to the news.

ADA ADIMORA: Oh, my God. You know, honestly, there is no better pick for this appointment. I mean, she's the one we've been waiting for.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: People who know her say she brings to her work a mix of deep intellect and compassion, with a focus on how things work in the real world.

CHANG: Well, what have you heard about, say, her leadership style?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I heard about her ability to communicate authentically. I think you can hear that in her speech when she was announced by the Biden team yesterday. She said she never planned to go into government service. But when the nation or a patient is in crisis, this is what doctors do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: You run to take care of people, to stop the bleeding, to stabilize, to give them hope and a fighting chance to come back stronger.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One person who's known her a long time is Dr. Judy Auerbach, a sociologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. And she told me, in this moment, with the pandemic and the fragmented U.S. response...

JUDY AUERBACH: What we need is someone like her who has charisma, certainly, is able to speak to people directly, can speak truth to power even while she's in power, honestly. And I sort of hesitate to say this, but I know it matters to her - that she's a mom. There's a maternal, loving kindness that she brings to her interactions with people that I think is precisely what we need. We need a doctor mom like her right now.

CHANG: Mom. Well, what about inside CDC? What kind of reaction have you heard about her?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, she's an outsider not just at CDC, but in public health. She's coming from the health care system. And many current CDC staffers and formers that I checked with hadn't heard of her but seemed encouraged by her credentials. I say there - I would say there's cautious optimism. As you mentioned, morale at CDC is at a low. There's been politicization and accusations of racism against Black employees. But those who know her told me today, if anyone can right the ship, she can.

CHANG: That is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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