This post has been updated.
It took several hours Wednesday before employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention heard who was going to run the nation’s leading public health agency. Brenda Fitzgerald had just resigned after barely six months in the job because of conflicts over financial interests.
When the notice finally went out on the CDC’s internal announcement board that the principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, 58, with nearly three decades of CDC experience, would be taking over (again) as acting director, employees were very happy to hear the news.
“Yes! There is palpable relief that she’s back in charge,” said one analyst who did not want to be identified for obvious reasons. “You’d have joyous celebration if they made her permanent director.”
Early Thursday, Schuchat sent a “Dear Colleagues” email to staff thanking them for their work.
“It is an honor to provide leadership for our nation’s premier public health agency, and all of you, in this role. Please know that I take this responsibility very seriously and care tremendously about our continued excellence and strength,” she wrote.
“Although transitions can feel challenging, our unique ability to work together with partners on our public health mission will not falter,” she added, promising to routinely provide updates about the transition. “CDC is a tremendous organization with amazing people, and I feel very privileged to serve as your acting director.”
By Thursday afternoon, 40 comments had been posted anonymously on the internal announcements board applauding her return and suggesting that her bosses at the Health and Human Services Department should just make her the permanent director. (The only other announcement with more comments asked employees whether they work while sick.)
“HHS needs to make the obvious and easy decision to appoint Dr. Schuchat as CDC’s director permanently,” one person wrote.
“Dr. Schuchat — thank goodness you’re back. You’re amazing, thank you. I echo — Dr. Schuchat for director,” added another poster.
A longtime federal employee wrote, “Many, if not most, of us could earn higher wages in the private sector, but we are dedicated public health professionals and we choose to do this work in the public interest. As a CDC 'old-timer,' I have seen a few things and the work of many directors,” the post continued. “I feel it is time to go back to having a career CDC professional as director rather than having this position be so politicized.”
On Friday, others in the public health field joined the call to appoint Schuchat the permanent CDC director. In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the leadership of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health asked Azar to give her “strong consideration” for the job, noting that she is well respected inside and outside the CDC, and has shown “exemplary leadership in managing emergency responses to influenza and other outbreaks.”
Schuchat, who started her public health career at the CDC in July 1988, is also a two-star rear admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. She has played key roles in many public health emergencies, including the 2009 swine flu epidemic, the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that started in China, and the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. She was director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, which includes its influenza division, from 2006 to 2015. She served as acting director for six months in 2017 after Tom Frieden resigned from the post and before Fitzgerald was appointed.
On Friday, she is stepping back into a familiar role, providing an update on this year’s flu season, already the worst in nearly a decade.