White House set to tap Obama veteran Mandy Cohen to lead CDC

President Joe Biden plans to appoint former North Carolina health secretary Mandy Cohen as the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three people with knowledge of the matter told POLITICO.

Cohen, an Obama-era health official well known in Democratic policy circles, would replace outgoing CDC chief Rochelle Walensky, who is slated to leave the agency at the end of the month.

The White House declined to comment, and the people with knowledge of the matter, granted anonymity to discuss personnel moves, cautioned that the decision is not finalized. Cohen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Biden is expected to formally announce Cohen’s selection later this month. She had also met in recent days with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients and Health Secretary Xavier Becerra to discuss the job. Cohen’s possible appointment was first reported by the Washington Post.

Her selection would come at a transition point for the CDC, which faced intense scrutiny over its performance throughout the Covid crisis and low morale within the sprawling agency.

Biden picked Walensky at the outset of his administration in an effort to restore trust in the CDC and public health more broadly, vowing at the time that she would play a prominent role in directing his pandemic response. Yet while Walensky placed renewed emphasis on relying on science to craft policy, she also came under fire at times over the CDC’s shifting guidance and shaky messaging around key elements like masking and vaccines.

The CDC is also in the midst of a strategic overhaul launched by Walensky last year; a longer-term project that Cohen would be tasked with managing in an effort to better prepare the agency for the next public health emergency.

Biden officials involved in the search came away from discussions with Cohen impressed by her broad range of health experience at the federal and state levels, two of the people said, and convinced she had the ability to manage the nearly 11,000-person agency and the broader political dynamics of an administration gearing up for Biden’s re-election run.

Cohen spent four years as North Carolina’s health secretary, most notably running the state’s pandemic response before stepping down in January 2022. The role gave her the requisite public health experience that Biden aides were seeking in a candidate to replace Walensky, two of the people with knowledge of the matter said.

And during the Obama administration, she did stints as a senior official in various parts of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, where she was central to the agency’s high-profile implementation of the Affordable Care Act — and worked closely with Zients and other now-senior Biden officials.

Cohen also became one of the agency’s go-to officials for congressional testimony, winning praise for parrying pointed questions from Republicans sharply opposed to the health care law.

While Cohen’s appointment will not require Senate confirmation, she is likely to face ongoing scrutiny from Republican-led House committees investigating the Covid response.

Ben Leonard contributed to this report.

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