With Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH set to officially leave her post as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on June 30, 2023, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to President Biden’s proposed nominee—Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH—to head up that agency. Apart from the initial media reports of the intended nomination on June 1 and a recent letter to President Biden signed by 28 Republican members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives objecting to the choice, media coverage of Dr. Cohen’s nomination has been sparse.1 2 3 4 5 6
Perhaps now that Dr. Walensky has received a final grilling from Congress for her role in the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how that may have affected the public’s declining confidence in the CDC and vaccines, there will be increased focus on Dr. Cohen, who is an internal medicine physician, and whether she’s the right person to head up the agency and help reform it and repair its credibility.7 8
“The CDC needs a cultural overhaul. So you need somebody who is able to overcome the inertia of bureaucracy to complete such an effort,” said U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.3
Dr. Cohen, who for the past year has been CEO of primary care network Aledade Care Solutions, previously served nearly six years as North Carolina’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. During the Obama administration, she served as chief operating officer and chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In 2020, her name was reportedly “floated” as a possible pick for Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) under the Biden administration, so Dr. Cohen is apparently well known within the White House.3
Members of Congress Express Opposition to Cohen Nomination
This may explain some of the Republican opposition to Dr. Cohen, who is seen by some as too much of a partisan player in controversial COVID policies that have divided the nation. In the letter sent to President Biden by Republican Senators and Representatives, they wrote:
Dr. Cohen is unfit for the position. Throughout her career, Dr. Cohen has politicized science, disregarded civil liberties, and spread misinformation about the efficacy and necessity of COVID vaccinations and the necessity of masks, during her time as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
While Dr. Cohen claims to have acted on scientific data, her account of her decision- making during the pandemic indicates that she merely arbitrarily copied her friends’ actions in similar positions of power, without considering scientific evidence or the decisions of elected officials.6
The letter also cites Dr. Cohen’s “affiliation” with the COVID lockdowns, which some members of Congress believe will make it “difficult for the American people to trust” her lead the CDC as a “non-partisan actor who makes objective decisions rooted in scientific data, and not in political expediency.”6
Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), believes it is important during this period of transition and politicization for the CDC to stay on a mission. “Trust comes when people know you’re going to do what you’re supposed to do,” he said.3
It is unclear how committed the President is to backing Dr. Cohen’s nomination. The CDC post is not subject to confirmation by the Senate, as are department secretaries or the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But it’s looking as if Dr. Cohen is a controversial pick for an agency that is already mired in a lot of controversy.
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1 C-SPAN. Centers for Disease Control Director Testifies on COVID-19 Policies. June 13, 2023.
2 Chappell B. Rochelle Walensky, who led the CDC during the pandemic, resigns. NPR May 5, 2023.
3 Cohen A. Biden to pick Mandy Cohen to lead the CDC. Roll Call June 1, 2023.
4 Stolberg SG, Mandavilli A. Biden Is Said to Pick Former North Carolina Health Secretary to Lead C.D.C. The New York Times June 1, 2023.
5 Craver R. Budd submits letter opposing potential Cohen nomination to lead CDC. Winston-Salem Journal June 14, 2023.
6 Congress of the United States. Budd-Biden-CDC-Director-Nomination. June 13, 2023.
7 Choi J. Walensky faces COVID-19 panel for final time as CDC director. The Hill June 13, 2023.
8 Payerchin R. Lawmakers grill CDC Director Walensky over COVID-19 pandemic response. Medical Economics June 13, 2023.