Mandy Cohen is about to take charge of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency that is critical to public health and in the crosshairs of Congress.
Cohen will succeed Rochelle Walensky, who is slated to step down as CDC director on June 30. Walensky led the agency through the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Biden announced his appointment of Cohen, the former director of the North Carolina health department, to lead the CDC on June 16. The post doesn’t require Senate confirmation at this time, although the Senate will get the power to approve the CDC’s director beginning in 2025.
Regardless, Cohen will certainly face heavy scrutiny from lawmakers in Congress, and some Republican lawmakers chastised Biden for his choice.
Republican lawmakers derided Walensky and said CDC recommendations went too far during the pandemic, but she also faced from public health advocates for not offering clear communications and guidance to the public. Walensky said in August 2022 that the CDC stumbled in its “big moment” and vowed to improve communication, coordination with federal agencies and to have a more robust response to outbreaks.
Healthcare leaders say Cohen brings the skill set needed to succeed in running the CDC.
Cohen led the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services during much of the pandemic, running the agency from January 2017 through January 2022. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper calls her “a strong leader and a problem solver.” The governor, a Democrat, said Biden made an “excellent choice” in picking Cohen to lead the CDC.
Cohen also brings experience in the federal government, working as chief of staff and later as chief operating officer for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. She previously worked as deputy director of women’s health services in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The White House also touted her work in developing some of the policies of the Affordable Care Act.
An internal medicine physician, Cohen most recently has served as executive vice president of Aledade, Inc., a firm working with primary care practices.
The Association of American Medical Colleges hailed Cohen for her work in North Carolina and her experience with the CMS.
“With a firm grasp on the most pressing public health issues facing our nation, Dr. Cohen has been recognized as a national leader for her expertise and execution. She is well-positioned to lead the country through challenging times in public health that require precision, experience, diplomacy, and an innovative spirit,” the AAMC said in a statement.
In a recent speech, Cohen talked about the importance of transparency and building public confidence in regular briefings during the pandemic, The Washington Post reported. She noted that public trust in North Carolina increased in the pandemic. “Trust was not built at the national level, but I know trust was built in North Carolina,” Cohen said in the speech.
“It’s important to be clear about what you know and what you don’t know,” she said. “Trust isn’t built by having all the answers, it’s built with honesty and access.”
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Science that people in Washington and North Carolina hold Cohen in high regard. “She’s smart, personable, engaging,” Benjamin said.
U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra described Cohen as a “renowned physician” and public health expert.
‘Work cut out for her’
Still, a number of Republicans say Cohen isn’t the right person for the job.
More than two dozen GOP lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Ted Budd, a North Carolina Republican, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, signed a letter urging against Cohen’s appointment to lead the CDC. Some critics noted her work in organizing a group of doctors backing Barack Obama in his bid for the presidency.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, did not sign the letter, but he shared concerns about Cohen in a statement to The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.
“While Dr. Cohen has a wealth of medical experience, there are legitimate questions being raised about her role in recommending school shutdowns and enforcing the state’s emergency declaration for far longer than was necessary,” Tillis said in the statement.
“Dr. Cohen will have her work cut out for her as she attempts to restore the American people’s trust in the CDC,” Tillis added.
Walensky offered a strong statement of support suggesting that her successor is up to the difficult task.
“Her unique experience and accomplished tenure in North Carolina – along with her other career contributions – make her perfectly suited to lead CDC as it moves forward by building on the lessons learned from COVID-19 to create an organization poised to meet public health challenges of the future,” Walensky said in a statement. “I can think of no better hands in which to leave this agency during a critical time in its history.”
The CDC director is the second key health figure Biden has chosen in the last several weeks. Last month, Biden nominated Monica Bertagnolli to serve as the director of the National Institutes of Health.