Rochelle Paula Walensky is an American physician-scientist who is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Prior to her appointment at the CDC, she was 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 AIDS and HIV.
Early life and education
Walensky was born in Peabody, Massachusetts to Carol Bersoff-Bernstein and Edward H. Bersoff. She was raised in Maryland.
In 1991, Walensky received an AB in biochemistry and molecular biology from Washington University in St. Louis. In 1995, she received an MD 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.
Walensky has been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School since 2001, first as an instructor, then as a professor.
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. She serves on the board of directors of Mass General Brigham. She has been co-director of the Medical Practice Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General Hospital since 2011.
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:
- The speed that 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.
She is involved in a medical discussion on the best strategy to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and achieve herd immunity. One side of the discussion supports the Great Barrington Declaration which suggests "focused protection" on vulnerable groups, while allowing less threatened groups greater freedom from quarantine and other costly methods. Walensky favors the John Snow Memorandum. She says that "The Great Barrington Declaration is predicated on the idea that you know who is going to get sick and you can somehow isolate and protect them, but there is absolutely no evidence that we can do this ... No-one is suggesting that lockdowns should be the default position. They are a last resort. But if we just let the virus run free without mitigation strategies, such as masking, our hospitals will overflow and that would mean we would no longer be able to take care of the population's health across the board".
The Biden transition announced Walensky's presumptive appointment as CDC director on December 7, 2020. A director of the CDC does not require Senate confirmation to take office. Doctors and public health experts widely praised the choice. Walensky's tenure at the CDC began on January 20, 2021.
Walensky is married to Loren D. Walensky, a physician-scientist. They have three sons. They are Jewish and members of Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts.