Rochelle Walensky

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Rochelle Walensky
Official portrait, 2021
19th Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In office
January 20, 2021 – June 30, 2023
PresidentJoe Biden
DeputyAnne Schuchat
Debra Houry (acting)
Nirav D. Shah
Preceded byRobert Redfield
Succeeded byMandy Cohen
Personal details
Rochelle Paula Bersoff

(1969-04-05) April 5, 1969 (age 54)
Peabody, Massachusetts, U.S.
(m. 1995)
ParentEdward H. Bersoff (father)
EducationWashington University in St. Louis (BA)
Johns Hopkins University (MD)
Harvard University (MPH)

Rochelle Paula Walensky (née Bersoff; born April 5, 1969) is an American physician-scientist who served as the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2021 to 2023 and had also served as the administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in her capacity as the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2021 to 2023.[1] On May 5, 2023, she announced her resignation, effective June 30, 2023.[2][3] Prior to her appointment at the CDC, she had served as the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Walensky is an expert on HIV/AIDS.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Walensky was born Rochelle Paula Bersoff in Peabody, Massachusetts,[5] to Edward Bersoff and Carol Bersoff-Bernstein. Her family is Jewish.[6] She was raised in Potomac, Maryland.[7][8] Walensky graduated high school from Winston Churchill High School in 1987.[9]

In 1991, Walensky received a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry and molecular biology from Washington University in St. Louis.[8] In 1995, she received an Doctor of Medicine from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. From 1995 to 1998, she trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Walensky then became a fellow in the Massachusetts General Hospital/Brigham and Women's Hospital Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program. In 2001, she earned an MPH in clinical effectiveness from the Harvard School of Public Health.[10]

Academic career[edit]

Walensky had been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School since 2001, first as an instructor, then as a professor.[11] Walensky was a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School from 2012 to 2020, and served as chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital from 2017 to 2020. She conducted research on vaccine delivery and strategies to reach underserved communities. Walensky has worked to improve HIV screening and care in South Africa, led health policy initiatives, and researched clinical trial design and evaluation in a variety of settings.[12]

Walensky was chair of the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council at the National Institutes of Health from 2014 to 2015 and has served as a member of the US Department of Health and Human Services Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents since 2011.[13] She serves on the board of directors of Mass General Brigham.[14] She has been co-director of the Medical Practice Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General Hospital since 2011.[13]


Walensky was among the first to sign the John Snow Memorandum in October 2020 as a critical response to the Great Barrington Declaration.[15]

In a paper published in Health Affairs in November 2020, Walensky and her co-authors showed that the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine will be strongly affected by:[16][17]

  • The speed with which the vaccine is produced and administered. Some of the potential vaccines have logistical challenges including the need for ultra-cold storage or requiring two doses.
  • The willingness of people to be vaccinated.
  • The pandemic's severity when the vaccine is introduced.

CDC director[edit]

President-elect Joe Biden announced Walensky's presumptive appointment as CDC director on December 7, 2020, during the presidential transition.[18] Doctors and public health experts widely praised the choice.[19] As the position of director of the CDC does not require Senate confirmation to take office,[20] Walensky's tenure at the CDC began on January 20, 2021.

On August 3, 2021, Walensky instituted a 60-day extension of a federal COVID-related ban, which had just expired, on landlords evicting their tenants. The extended ban applied only to "counties experiencing substantial and high levels of community transmission levels", but under the criteria of the ban this covered an area holding 90% of the U.S. population.[21] On August 26, as was widely expected,[22] the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the extension as unconstitutional, ruling that only the U.S. Congress had the authority to issue such a moratorium.[23]

As the pandemic entered the Omicron variant wave, Walensky acknowledged that officials on the CDC response team were burned out,[24] and tried to reassign workers. Walensky and other top officials had a plan to dissolve large parts of the pandemic response team, which has more than 1,500 staffers, and reassign members to their original posts. Walensky shelved the plan with the emergence of Omicron as cases began to tick up across the U.S.,[24] bringing morale lower than ever at the CDC. However, Ashish Jha says, "Dr. Walensky inherited a really messy organization with some real strengths but also a lot of problems."[24]

In a January 18, 2022 interview with The Boston Globe Walensky responded to some of the criticisms of her first year in office.

Her critics told the Globe that she has confused the public on issues like quarantine guidance, school reopening, and mask-wearing. "What we’re seeing is policy failures, accompanied by poor messaging," said Anne N. Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College, who added that the rest of the administration is also to blame. Critics said that the CDC was prioritizing the economy over public health. The American Medical Association criticized her December 27 guidance to shorten the COVID isolation period from ten to five days and to let people who contracted COVID leave isolation without a negative test. Former CDC Director Dr. Tom_Frieden commented on her messaging around the change in guidance, saying “I think the way they were released was very problematic.”[25]

Walensky described her critics as "naysayers" who have helped sow the public confusion she has been accused of creating and pointing out that many Americans are still not following the most basic guidance on COVID-19 prevention. She also said, "We’re making decisions in imperfect times, sometimes without all the data that we would like to make them.” Walensky said she is working with a messaging coach and she is listening to her critics. She said that better communication is not always possible. "Some of this is not based on the messaging because, 'Wear a mask' is about as crystal clear as you could be. And still we have much of America not doing it. So some of the really easy stuff is not being followed, and some of the harder stuff is actually complicated science."[26]

During a January 26, 2022 news conference about the rise of the Omicron variant and high hospitalization rates, Dr. Walensky said the nation should not ease up on COVID-19 safety protocols, saying, "Milder does not mean mild and we cannot look past the strain on our health systems and substantial number of deaths." She also said, "It's important to remember we're still facing a high overall burden of disease."[27]

In April 2022, Dr. Walensky announced CDC was undergoing an external review following its mishandling of the pandemic.[28] On August 17, 2022, she delivered a sweeping rebuke of her agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying it had failed to respond quickly enough and needed to be overhauled.[29]

In October 22, 2022, Dr. Walensky tested positive for COVID-19. [30]

In November 29, 2022, Dr. Walensky marked the 50th year of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study,[31] and said that she would be meeting with colleagues and leaders in public health the following day, with a commitment to "ethical research & practice". Her comments that the 623 African-American study participants would be honored for their "suffering & sacrifice" was criticized by social media users, including those within Black Twitter, and other commentators as racist, while some users came to the defense of Walensky.[32][33][34] Walensky later tweeted, on November 30, that she reflected on the Tuskegee study, that the men who were subjects in the study were "honored", that "their pain & that of their families" was acknowledged, and stated that the legacy of the study's participants "lives on...[and] must never be forgotten."[33]

On May 5, 2023, Dr. Walensky announced her resignation from her role at the CDC, effective June 30, 2023. Her decision came as the Biden administration was preparing to end the nation's national health emergency status around COVID, and she was one of multiple administration officials to leave after working on the pandemic.[3][35]

Personal life[edit]

Walensky is married to Loren D. Walensky, also a physician-scientist. They have three sons.[36] They are Jewish and members of Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts.[37]

Selected works and publications[edit]


  1. ^ "New CDC Director". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 20, 2021. Retrieved January 21, 2021.
  2. ^ Samuels, Brett (May 5, 2023). "Rochelle Walensky exits as CDC chief". The Hill. Retrieved May 5, 2023.
  3. ^ a b Sun, Lena H.; Diamond, Dan (May 5, 2023). "CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to step down June 30". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 5, 2023.
  4. ^ Pager, Tyler (December 6, 2020). "To rebuild CDC, Biden picks Rochelle Walensky". Politico. Archived from the original on December 7, 2020. Retrieved December 6, 2020.
  5. ^ "Mass. General Hospital's Rochelle Walensky to run CDC". December 7, 2020.
  6. ^ "Loren Walensky engaged to marry Rochelle Bersoff" (PDF). The Item of Millburn and Short Hills. October 20, 1994. p. 7. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 7, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  7. ^ "Mass General's Walensky to lead CDC". Jewish Journal. December 10, 2020. Retrieved January 21, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Evitts Dickinson, Elizabeth (April 30, 2021). "A conversation with CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky". The Hub. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  9. ^ "Centers For Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky Graduated Winston Churchill High School in 1987". Montgomery Senteniel Newspaper. July 2, 2021.
  10. ^ "Dr. Rochelle Walensky – Mass General Brigham Infectious Diseases Fellowship". Harvard Medical School. Archived from the original on October 15, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  11. ^ "Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH" (PDF). United States House of Representatives. Retrieved February 3, 2021.
  12. ^ "CDC Director". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 20, 2021. Retrieved February 6, 2021.Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  13. ^ a b "Rochelle Walensky". DCP-3 Disease Control Priorities. University of Washington. Archived from the original on September 28, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  14. ^ "Leadership, MassGeneral Brigham". Archived from the original on October 25, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  15. ^ "John Snow Memorandum". John Snow Memorandum. October 2020. Archived from the original on January 26, 2022. Retrieved May 11, 2023.
  16. ^ "COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness to be affected heavily by infrastructure, public attitudes". EurekAlert. AAAS. November 19, 2020. Archived from the original on December 1, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  17. ^ Paltiel, A. David; Schwartz, Jason L.; Zheng, Amy; Walensky, Rochelle P. (January 1, 2021). "Clinical Outcomes Of A COVID-19 Vaccine: Implementation Over Efficacy: Study examines how definitions and thresholds of vaccine efficacy, coupled with different levels of implementation effectiveness and background epidemic severity, translate into outcomes". Health Affairs. 40 (1): 42–52. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2020.02054. ISSN 0278-2715. PMC 7931245. PMID 33211536.
  18. ^ "President-elect Joe Biden Announces Key Members of Health Team". Biden transition. December 7, 2020. Archived from the original on December 7, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  19. ^ Dwyer, Dialynn (December 7, 2020). "How doctors are reacting to Biden picking Rochelle Walensky to head CDC". Archived from the original on December 7, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  20. ^ McKay, Betsy (December 7, 2020). "Biden to Select Rochelle Walensky to Lead the CDC". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Archived from the original on December 7, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  21. ^ Katy O'donnell; Laura Barrón-López; Heather Caygle (August 3, 2021). "CDC announces new eviction ban, despite Supreme Court threat". Politico.
  22. ^ Jacobson, Louis (August 3, 2021). "Nancy Pelosi's dubious claim about who can extend the eviction moratorium". Politifact.
  23. ^ Williams, Pete (August 26, 2021). "Supreme Court blocks Biden administration's eviction moratorium". NBC News.
  24. ^ a b c "Walensky faces CDC burnout as pandemic enters third year". Politico. January 15, 2022.
  25. ^ LaFraniere, Sharon; Stolberg, Sheryl Gay; Weiland, Noah (January 5, 2022). "For C.D.C.'s Walensky, a Steep Learning Curve on Messaging". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on August 18, 2022. Retrieved August 26, 2022.
  26. ^ Bridgood, Jess (January 19, 2022). "Dr. Rochelle Walensky defends her CDC tenure: 'We're making decisions in imperfect times'". The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 19, 2022.
  27. ^ Bursztynsky, Jessica (January 26, 2022). "CDC director says 'milder doesn't mean mild' as Covid hospitalizations reach record highs". CNBC. Retrieved January 26, 2022.
  28. ^ Rabin, Roni Caryn (April 4, 2022). "The C.D.C. will undergo a comprehensive re-evaluation, the agency's director said". The New York Times. New York. Archived from the original on August 17, 2022. Retrieved August 26, 2022.
  29. ^ LaFraniere, Sharon (August 17, 2022). "Walensky, Citing Botched Pandemic Response, Calls for C.D.C. Reorganization". The New York Times. New York. Archived from the original on August 17, 2022. delivered a sweeping rebuke of her agency's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying it had failed to respond quickly enough and needed to be overhauled.
  30. ^ Musto, Julia (October 22, 2022). "CDC Director Rochelle Walensky tests positive for COVID-19 month after getting updated booster shot". Fox News.
  31. ^ Tyson, Lillie J.; Koller, Christopher (November 29, 2022). "From Shame And Trauma To Hope And Healing: An Act Of Reconciliation And Restorative Justice For The Tuskegee Syphilis Study". Health Affairs. doi:10.1377/forefront.20221128.277996. Archived from the original on December 6, 2022.
  32. ^ Bartov, Shira Li (November 30, 2022). "CDC Director Slammed for Calling 'Racist' Tuskegee Study a 'Sacrifice'". Newsweek. Archived from the original on December 5, 2022.
  33. ^ a b Duncan-Smith, Nicole (December 2, 2022). "CDC Director Gets Dragged By Twitter Users Who Claim She Said Victims of Tuskegee Experiment Willingly Made a 'Sacrifice'". Atlanta Black Star. Archived from the original on December 3, 2022.
  34. ^ Roberts, Nigel (December 1, 2022). "CDC Director Slammed For Calling Tuskegee Study Victims' Suffering A 'Sacrifice'". BET. Archived from the original on December 6, 2022.
  35. ^ Toy, Sarah (May 5, 2023). "CDC Director Walensky to Step Down". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 5, 2023.
  36. ^ "Rochelle Walensky, MD". World Medical Innovation Forum. Archived from the original on November 6, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  37. ^ Tenorio, Rich (April 8, 2020). "'It's a little bit like being in a tunnel looking at an oncoming train'". Jewish Journal. Archived from the original on December 7, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Succeeded by