WASHINGTON — President Biden plans to tap longtime federal and state health official Mandy Cohen to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after Rochelle Walensky departs at the end of June, according to three people with knowledge of his plans.
If appointed, Cohen would inherit an agency in the midst of assessing its Covid-19 response, including criticisms that it stumbled on test and masking guidance and stoked Americans’ frustration with public health agencies.
While Cohen for the last year has been CEO of Maryland-based Aledade Health Solutions, she spent five years leading North Carolina’s health and human services department and had two stints at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration.
Cohen’s name also circulated during Biden’s search for a CMS administrator. He ultimately nominated Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, who the Senate confirmed last May.
“What the CDC needs now is what Mandy Cohen brings,” said Andy Slavitt, a former Biden adviser and CMS official who worked closely with Cohen at the agency. “She’s a cultural leader who can transform an agency from the bottom up, an accountable reformer, an extremely crisp communicator, and a savvy bridge-builder.”
The Washington Post first reported Biden’s plan to nominate Cohen.
While Cohen is likely to face an onslaught of questions from lawmakers about the CDC’s ongoing reform plans, she won’t have to weather a Senate confirmation process. Under the omnibus spending deal passed last year, CDC directors will be Senate-confirmed positions beginning in 2025.
People who know Cohen said she will be well-equipped to handle the political storm over CDC after five years as health secretary for politically divided North Carolina during the bulk of the pandemic.
“She is a public health official with political acumen,” said Stephen Morrison, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center. He added: “She has real chops at running a state health department in a time of crisis.”
Cohen, who was North Carolina’s health secretary through the bulk of the pandemic, cited two key lessons from the emergency — racial disparities exposed by the crisis and data challenges — in an August 2020 interview with the American Journal of Managed Care.
She also was asked how to respond to heightened attacks on public health officials in the early days of the pandemic.
“I would say stay true to the science, be a leader, stay the course of trying to understand the science and adjust to that,” Cohen said. “Always be in a learning mode that we could have new evidence, new data, new technology, new medicines at any moment, which is wonderful, and to incorporate that into our thinking as we go forward. And just hang in there and say this too shall pass.”