A talk with CDC’s Rochelle Walensky and CDC Foundation’s Judy Monroe

Atlanta’s role as the country’s premiere center for public health has never been clearer than during the Covid-19 pandemic. Leading the global fight against the virus has been the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which has in turn been supported with resources garnered by the Atlanta-based CDC Foundation.

David Rubinger, market president and publisher of Atlanta Business Chronicle, recently spoke with CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky and Judy Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, about how the two organizations are partnering to marshal resources to protect Americans’ health. The interview took place as part of the Health Connect South conference held on Sept. 23. Here are excerpts from their discussion, edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Walensky is scheduled to be interviewed at Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2021 Healthcare Forum/Virtual Event on Oct. 21.

ABC: The CDC, maybe because it was founded by Congress, has become a political football. How do we de-politicize what is such an important topic and get it away from what goes on in the halls of Congress?

Dr. Walensky: One of the great pleasures that I have had in coming to CDC over the last nine months is just to see the huge army of people who are working here, whose names the public will never know, and who are working tirelessly to keep the public safe. All nights, every night, especially during Covid, just working so that someone else out there in the country will have a better outcome for what is happening. It’s just been so impressive.

One of the things I really try and do in having this dialogue, and I’ve just had this dialogue related to firearm safety, is to find the places we agree. We don’t necessarily have to disagree. We can have differing opinions about how to keep people safe from firearms. But can we agree that young people shouldn’t commit suicide with firearms? And if we can agree on that, then let’s agree on some steps that we can make to prevent them from happening. Let’s research how more than 90% of people who have firearms have them and keep them safe. What are they doing well? Let’s invite them to the table. I think part of this is really in the context of productive discussion. We are not on different sides of the issue. There are so many places that we can agree, and let’s learn from each other.

ABC: Judy, I would think that the foundation can play a critical role in this because you are not a political organization by nature.

Dr. Monroe: This is where we bring our partners to the table. You know, public health is vital to business success, and this is where business leaders can help. For business leaders and healthcare leaders to understand how valuable public health is, how valuable CDC is, and how we need to keep that apolitical as much as possible. They have a strong voice, they can advocate. But one of the things that businesses can do is take the guidance coming out of CDC and apply it in their business, apply it with their employees, in their communities. I mean, that shows trust. We need to build the trust. And that trust has to happen through many, many partners. So that’s one of the ways that we approach it with our business partners.

ABC: Dr. Walensky, you’ve been in this role now for nine months. What has surprised you, both on the positive and what has been a bit of a bummer for you through the process?

Dr. Walensky: You know, this has just been an extraordinary gift, an extraordinary honor and opportunity… Being able to sort of open the door and see the people behind it and see the extraordinary work — time and time and time again — has just been a true gift for me to understand the science that’s been involved and to really see how it’s more than just the sausage being made. It’s just an entire factory of just incredible people who are selfless in their dedication to making sure others are safe.

I wish we weren’t where we are right now in September of 2021. You know, as somebody with a history in working in HIV, it doesn’t surprise me much in an infectious disease that, even with the scientific tools, that behavioral health, behavioral science might be part of what is keeping us from being successful in this pandemic. How is it that we get people the information so that they themselves want to be vaccinated?

And so I do think that we need to spend some time really understanding those communities. We’ve talked a lot about workforce and, and public health workforce. But I do think if we had community health workers in so many communities that have been vaccine hesitant now, that had been checking diabetes and checking blood pressure control and doing all of those things, that when it came time to vaccinate, it would have been a no-brainer. They would have easily been able to convince their communities to get vaccinated. They have been been trusted health providers.

So we still have work to do. But I have an incredible agency behind me. I’m ready to roll up the sleeves and do that work.

ABC: Judy, you’ve now worked with several CDC directors over time. What is Dr. Walensky like to work with? What do you like?

Dr. Monroe: I’ve shared this with Rochelle. Her positive energy, and her presence with the media, and being able to handle the tough questions — and the tough job. Let me say, she’s got a very hard job. I’ve also shared with her, I think in the 75 year history of CDC, I would say that she’s walked into this position probably at the hardest moment of any CDC director.

I just don’t believe anyone else has walked into such an enormous challenge. So my hat’s off to Rochelle for her leadership. And we are working very well with CDC right now. What makes my job easier is when we have authentic dialogue with the agency, that we work together to try to understand each other’s challenges and work toward a common goal. That’s when we all succeed.

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