LISTEN: The new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta wants to help restore trust in the department. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports.

CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen at the Commerce Club in Atlanta.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Mandy Cohen speaks to the Atlanta Press Club at the Commerce Club in Atlanta in September 2023.

Credit: Ellen Eldridge / GPB News

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Mandy Cohen told the Atlanta Press Club she considers it a miraculous achievement that so many Americans got at least one vaccination against COVID-19, but she recognizes the need to communicate more and more clearly than previous leaders have.

Many people, including policymakers, got to know the CDC through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cohen said, but that's not all the CDC does.

Cohen says she has several goals including helping members of Congress understand more about what the CDC does, including international malaria prevention and fighting the opioid epidemic.

"When we ask Americans what is their No. 1 health concern, actually it is fentanyl," she said. "Right, as a threat to their health. And so CDC obviously needs to respond to those kinds of threats."

But the threat of misinformation and a lack of trust in public health is dangerous, she said.

Overall, just 29% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public, down from 40% who said this in November 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.

"Trust is absolutely foundational to our ability to help Americans and those around the world protect themselves," Cohen said. "And trust is not just a feeling, it's an intentional plan."

The newest director of the CDC has been on the job less than two months. She said her goal is transparency.

"We're real people," Cohen said. "At the end of the day, no matter what side of the aisle we sit on, building relationships and helping understand where folks are coming from is really, really critical."

Her emphasis is on building relationships like she did when she led the Department of Health and Human Affairs for North Carolina during the pandemic.

"We really focused on being as transparent as we could and communicating in a simple way over and over," she said. "And we tried to be clear about what we knew and what we didn't know, because we are seeing science evolve in front of our eyes."

Cohen said she will communicate more frequently and meet people where they are to show them how workers at the CDC are doing their jobs day in and day out.

Cohen said the CDC is also working to address the shortage of public health workers across the state and country.