Schuchat categorically denied reports of tensions with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, saying in an exchange of text messages: “Whoever told you that has no idea of the close relationship we have. She is a wonderful leader, colleague and now friend. I cannot even imagine having tensions with her!”
Schuchat’s resignation closely follows the departure of longtime CDC official Nancy Messonnier, who left the agency Friday after she was replaced as the head of the CDC’s vaccine task force. Messonnier had played a key role in overseeing last year’s vaccine rollout and had drawn President Donald Trump’s ire after she publicly warned in February 2020 that the coronavirus outbreak would disrupt Americans’ lives — making her the first administration official to issue such an alert. Biden administration officials had folded Messonnier’s vaccine task force into the agency’s broader operations earlier this year.
Walensky confirmed Schuchat’s departure in a statement that expressed “enormous gratitude” for her leadership “during this very challenging period for our country.”
“Anne embodies selfless public service, the pinnacle of scientific and intellectual standards, and has given her heart to our agency and the public health community,” Walensky said. “I will remain forever grateful that our paths crossed, even for just a short while.”
Some officials worried about the impact of Schuchat’s departure on the morale of the agency’s more than 13,000 employees, including locally employed staffers around the world, and more than 10,000 contractors. Morale is still low after the agency faced unprecedented political pressure under the Trump administration, as well as outside criticism for its handling of the pandemic. Schuchat has been regarded as a stabilizing force.
When she ran the agency’s incident management response last year, she often sought to ease tensions by opening morning meetings with songs about the outbreak set to Broadway tunes. When she ran the agency’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, she wrote short poems that she included in otherwise routine updates.
She is well regarded among her counterparts at federal and state health agencies and among members of Congress.
Schuchat, 61, who disclosed her plans to retire during a midday meeting, had told friends since last year that she was exhausted and ready to leave. Walensky said at the meeting that she would share more information soon on the process for naming Schuchat’s replacement, according to a senior CDC official.
Walensky is also planning other new hires, according to individuals with direct knowledge of the personnel changes.
As the CDC’s top career official, Schuchat was targeted by Trump political appointees who argued that the agency’s scientists were working to undermine Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Some Trump officials alleged that her May 2020 assessment of how the coronavirus spread across the United States was intended as a criticism of how the Trump administration had handled the outbreak. CDC officials disputed the allegation, but Schuchat’s public appearances were curtailed in the wake of the report.
Schuchat, who joined the CDC as an epidemic intelligence service officer in 1988, took on several high-priority assignments. In addition to working on the emergency response team that investigated anthrax-spore-laden envelopes sent to politicians after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she played key roles during the 2003 SARS outbreak that started in China, the 2009 H1N1 swine-flu epidemic, the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, the 2016 Zika outbreak and the probe of vaping-related lung injuries in 2019. She is also a retired two-star rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service.
She served as acting director for six months in 2017 after Tom Frieden resigned from the post, before Brenda Fitzgerald was appointed and again before Robert Redfield was appointed in March 2018.
Schuchat also gained a measure of fame when Kate Winslet, who played a CDC epidemiologist in the 2011 film “Contagion,” modeled her character on Schuchat and spent time shadowing the longtime agency official to prepare for the role.
In a prepared statement, Schuchat said she hopes to find time in retirement “for creative passions” and is upbeat about the agency’s future.
“I will be leaving with the greatest respect and confidence in CDC’s leadership and staff, and the important work we do,” she said. “I could not be more optimistic about the future of our agency and the prospects for our public health system.”