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What to know about the new CDC Director Mandy Cohen

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is getting a new director. President Biden has named Dr. Mandy Cohen to the role. She's the former health secretary for North Carolina. NPR's Pien Huang is here to tell us more about her. Hey there.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: Hey. So who exactly is Dr. Cohen? Tell us a little bit about her background.

HUANG: Well, Dr. Cohen is 44 years old. She's an internal medicine doctor, and she's worked in top positions in state and federal government. As you mentioned, Juana, she's probably best known for serving as North Carolina's health secretary. She was there from 2017 to 2021, was the face of their pandemic response, and she reflected on that experience as a commencement speaker last month at Guilford College.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANDY COHEN: What can be learned from this dumpster fire of a time? The central learning for me is about the importance of trust. And I truly believe change happens at the pace of trust.

HUANG: Cohen also worked in the Obama administration. She was chief operating officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, where she helped roll out the Affordable Care Act.

SUMMERS: So she mentioned trust there. And, I mean, we should point out the CDC lost a good deal of public trust during the course of the pandemic. What is Dr. Cohen facing as she takes over this agency?

HUANG: You're right. I mean, the CDC's reputation got severely tarnished in the pandemic. Outgoing director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says that they made some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes. So Cohen will be tasked with rebuilding the trust publicly and also rebuilding the agency from the inside. This is a federal agency with 10,000 employees, and attrition has been high. Morale has been low. Another thing that Cohen will be tasked with is advocating for the agency in Washington. She's going to be pushing for more money, more authorities for the CDC and Congress, and it's an ask that she's going to be making in the middle of a big budget crunch. And she's also facing opposition from some Republican lawmakers. For instance, last week a group of 28 Republicans sent a letter to the president calling her, quote, "unfit for the position."

SUMMERS: OK, so those are the political challenges. But beyond that, what will Cohen have on her hands when it comes to the nation's public health?

HUANG: Right. I mean, that is the CDC's core mission - protecting the nation's public health. I spoke with Dr. Georges Benjamin. He's head of the American Public Health Association, and he says the agency has a lot on its plate. It's still dealing with COVID, and it has a lot of other challenges, too.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: We still have an obesity epidemic, opioid epidemic, a firearm epidemic. We have a rising number of STDs.

HUANG: That's just part of the list, and there's also not enough people trained to respond. Many people left the field in the past few years, and the nation now has a deficit of 80,000 public health workers. So Cohen's going to be juggling a lot.

SUMMERS: Yeah, sounds like it. What do we know, if anything, about Cohen's approach and how she'll manage all of this?

HUANG: Well, supporters that I spoke with point to a few key traits that made her Biden's pick for the role. She's got experience navigating politics both on the state and federal levels. For instance, in North Carolina, she worked for a Democratic governor with a Republican legislature to try and expand access to health care. People that have worked with her and for her also say that she's an expert in managing people and implementing policy. And one of her great strengths, they say, is communicating. She's able to connect with the public. She's able to put things in language that people can understand. And another thing colleagues say is that she does not shy away from hard things. She tackles them head-on. And that's going to be something that she's going to have to rely on as she's going to be tasked, as we said, with rebuilding the public health workforce, fighting for the CDC's resources and powers in Congress. So right now Cohen's wrapping up some paperwork and her responsibility...

SUMMERS: OK.

HUANG: ...Responsibilities at her current job with the health care company Aledade. She starts as CDC director next month.

SUMMERS: NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
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