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New CDC director Dr. Mandy Cohen on her vision for the agency

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The pandemic was a chance for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do what it does best. Instead, that public health crisis left the CDC marred by political interference and confusing messaging, and the agency lost trust among Americans. Trust is clearly one issue on the mind of the agency's new director, Dr. Mandy Cohen. She mentioned the word about 50 times at a commencement speech she delivered earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANDY COHEN: Trust is a critical foundation for a healthy society. Trust in institutions such as government or media or business has been eroding in recent years. This lack of trust has led to polarization, to division.

PFEIFFER: Dr. Cohen is an internist who led the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services during the pandemic, and as of last month, she is director of the CDC. She's with us now. Welcome, Dr. Cohen, to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

COHEN: Thank you, Sacha. Great to be here.

PFEIFFER: On that issue of trust, two years into the pandemic, there was a survey in which a quarter of the respondents said that they trusted the CDC not very much or not at all - a quarter. That's a big fraction for you to wrestle with. How do you plan to try to rebuild trust with people in the U.S.?

COHEN: Well, I think there's really three important steps. First is making sure that we are being transparent; we're having clear communications that are simple and accurate that folks can understand. So that's number one - transparency. And the second is making sure that we execute or have good performance in what the CDC is meant to do - and so making sure that we are doing what we say we're going to do. And the third, very important, is about building relationships and partnership. We can't do it alone from the CDC.

PFEIFFER: Beyond COVID, the CDC has so many issues it could focus on - obesity, opioids, rising numbers of STDs, shortage of public health workers, fighting conspiracy theories. What, briefly would you say you would like your major direction or focus to be for the agency?

COHEN: Sure. There are many threats here. What you're going to see - first focus for me is certainly to make sure we are ready for this fall and winter virus season. The good news is that we have more tools than ever before to fight COVID, flu and RSV. We have vaccines. We have testing. We have treatment. But we need to use all those tools to make sure that folks are protecting their health.

PFEIFFER: Before we move on to the fall focus of COVID, one more question about a different issue - gun violence. It's now the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. What do you think the CDC could do to reduce deaths and injuries in our country, if anything?

COHEN: So already, the CDC does work and research in this space, and some of the data that you're quoting is from the CDC. What we know is that unfortunately, for example, suicides - half of suicides are related to someone using a gun - again, another place where we can intervene. I think there's a lot of creative work going on around the country. We need to lift up best practices of gun safety. Just like we make cars safer with seatbelts, there are ways for us to make guns safer. We don't want to see children lose their lives needlessly because of guns. And I think CDC can help bring the research and the evidence and the best practices to bear so that we know how to protect ourselves.

PFEIFFER: Going back to COVID because it is such a - still an ongoing issue - do you know yet whether there will be a new COVID booster targeting the latest variant available in the fall?

COHEN: There are manufacturers of vaccines that are undergoing that process right now. The FDA experts, as well as experts here at CDC, still have their work to do. But, yes, we anticipate there being a new COVID booster available probably in the early October time frame. We know COVID is here with us. It's going to stay with us. And it's - sadly, it is still killing folks every single day. And that doesn't need to happen. We can use the vaccines, the testing and the treatment that we have to protect folks.

PFEIFFER: You know, as you know, we have a great deal of not just vaccine hesitancy and not just vaccine resistance, but vaccine hostility in our country. Do you have any thoughts for how the CDC can change people's minds on that?

COHEN: Well, I think that fundamentally goes back to trust and how we can rebuild trust, not just in CDC but in institutions, in media and science overall. And I think that fundamentally underlies our ability to help folks understand what tools can and should be used to protect their health.

PFEIFFER: You actually think you can make progress there? You think you could change minds?

COHEN: I think so. We saw that happen in North Carolina while I was serving as secretary of health and human services. We actually saw trust go up in the department over the time we were responding to the COVID crisis. And we also saw a very high rate of vaccination. We actually saw more than 99% of seniors over the age of 65 get vaccinated in North Carolina, despite, you know, us being a politically divided state. So I think it can be done. And we're going to be focused on building those bridges and building that trust so that folks take vaccines. But I'd also say that there are other tools. It's not just vaccines. Let's get - if a vaccine is not right for you, then testing and treatment is also a tool in our toolbox that we need to use.

PFEIFFER: We saw during COVID how inadequate our public health system was. And yet in the recent debt ceiling deal, the CDC budget took cuts. How adequately resourced do you feel the CDC is now for whatever might come at it in the future?

COHEN: The CDC is an important national security asset. I think we understand that in a different way than ever before. We need to have a strong asset that can identify threats and respond to them quickly so that we can protect everyone's health. And in order to do that, just like we have a military that protects us, we need to invest in this tool that allows us to detect and to respond to those threats. And so we need the resources to do it. Cuts are not going to allow us to do it. In fact, we need the right investments to make sure we have the data infrastructure and the workforce needed to be that national security asset that the country deserves.

PFEIFFER: And final question - during COVID, you were a top state public health official. You really were in the thick of it at a very intense time for this country. Are there any lessons or any key lesson you learned from that that you'll try to apply to your federal job?

COHEN: Well, it was an honor to serve North Carolina through the COVID crisis, and I think that we were able to be successful in our response effort because we put trust at the center. We worked on being transparent. We worked on making sure that we delivered for the people of North Carolina and that we built relationships. We built them with historically underserved communities. We built them with our hospital system so that we executed as a team and did our work as a team. And importantly, we worked across the aisle. And this is where Congress and others are important partners in all of this. This is a team sport to protect folks' health. I think that's why North Carolina was successful. And I'm definitely going to bring those lessons learned here to the CDC.

PFEIFFER: That is Dr. Mandy Cohen, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Cohen, thank you for your time.

COHEN: Thank you, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR ASHTON SONG, "NICOLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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