Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Infectious Disease Guru
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Like fellow anti-COVID crusader Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Rochelle Walensky cut her teeth studying the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Early in her medical career, Walensky advocated model-based decision analysis to determine the cost-effectiveness of HIV screening, care, and prevention, particularly in underserved communities.
A quarter-century later, as chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, she sought to tackle COVID-19 the same way, creating a mathematical model with her colleagues to determine the factors that would impact the effectiveness of a vaccine.
Late last year, she signed onto the John Snow Memorandum, a statement by thousands of medical professionals that affirmed the need to continue social distancing, the use of face coverings, and rapid testing and tracing. Just as importantly, the memo dismissed as a “fallacy” the idea that allowing uncontrolled infections among low-risk populations would lead to herd immunity.
Her work caught the attention of then-President-elect Biden’s nascent health care team, and during the transition he named her as his choice to oversee the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her peers in the public-health sphere voiced support for her selection, stating that she would strengthen the agency and restore its pre-pandemic reputation, particularly through communication with the public.
Approach and Motivations
Excerpted from Rochelle’s Vignette profile
Applies model-based analytical approach used in HIV/AIDS research to understand the COVID-19 pandemic; motivated to address the pandemic primarily through protecting vulnerable populations.
- Began her medical career in the 1990s during the HIV/AIDS crisis, when she witnessed vulnerable communities become further marginalized because of HIV stigma; translates that experience to today, as vulnerable communities are being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic
- Uses model-based decision analysis to determine the cost-effectiveness of HIV screening, care, and prevention, and advocates HIV antiretroviral treatment as a prevention method
- Has continued using her model-based approach in studying COVID-19, creating a mathematical model with her colleagues to determine factors that would impact the effectiveness of a vaccine; believes it is important to build public trust in the medical system, particularly among underserved communities
- Supports the John Snow Memorandum not only because of the lack of evidence for natural herd immunity, but also of the desire to protect all individuals from the virus, especially those in vulnerable populations
- Told Jewish Journal in 2020 that she found solace from the stress of working on the front lines during the pandemic through the community offered by her synagogue
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