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Who’s Leading CDC After Brenda Fitzgerald’s Resignation?

News  |  By Steven Porter  
   January 31, 2018

The principal deputy director—who already served much of 2017 as acting CDC director—stepped back into the role for the time being.

After less than seven months on the job, Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, resigned from her post Wednesday as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, following a report that she had continued trading tobacco stock while overseeing the CDC’s smoking cessation programs.

The resignation—which followed a Politico report Tuesday night that Fitzgerald had bought tobacco company shares even after taking the CDC leadership position last July—creates a vacancy once again in a high-ranking public health position that was empty nearly half of last year.

Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, who led the CDC all eight years of President Barack Obama’s time in office, said he has been impressed by Fitzgerald’s commitment to public health and wishes her well in her future endeavors.

“I have spoken with Dr. Fitzgerald & believe her when she says she was unaware a tobacco company investment had been made, she understands that any affiliation between the tobacco industry & public health is unacceptable, & that when she learned of it she directed that it be sold,” Frieden said Wednesday in a tweet.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was sworn in earlier this week, accepted Fitzgerald’s resignation Wednesday morning on the basis that her “complex financial interests” had resulted in her needing to recuse herself from so many duties that it impeded her ability to do her job, according to a statement released by HHS spokesperson Matt Lloyd.

“Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period,” the statement said.

Azar took the top job at HHS after his predecessor, Tom Price, resigned last September amid controversy over his expensive travel habits, after less than eight months on the job. Fitzgerald was tapped to helm CDC during Price’s short tenure. Investigative reporting by Politico has been credited as a major factor in both of their resignations.

Who’s in charge?

Frieden resigned last year with the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, MD, (RADM, USPHS), then served as acting director from January 20, 2017, through July 7, 2017, when Fitzgerald was named director. Wednesday’s resignation means Schuchat stepped back in again as acting director. (The CDC website was updated about noon Wednesday to reflect Fitzgerald's resignation and Schuchat's return to the acting director role.)

Schuchat began working for CDC in 1988 as an epidemic intelligence service officer, and she’s been principal deputy director since 2015, according to her bio. She worked with CDC’s Washington, D.C., team during the 2001 anthrax response, led the agency’s SARS response in Beijing in 2003, and served as chief health officer for CDC’s response to the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009.

The CDC’s organizational chart, which was last updated earlier this month, notes that the chief of staff position is still vacant, and three other prominent members of the CDC team are, like Schuchat, serving on an acting basis: Associate Director for Science Leslie Dauphin, PhD; Associate Director for Policy Von Nguyen, MD, MPH; and CDC Washington Director Mitch Wolfe, MD, MPH (RADM, USPHS).

Rima Khabbaz, MD, is listed as leading the Office of Infectious Disease on an acting basis as well.

Neither the CDC nor HHS responded Wednesday morning to requests for clarification on the CDC’s interim leadership arrangement.

Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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