Dr. Rochelle Walensky says scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were "muzzled" and "diminished" by the Trump team, especially during the pandemic. She aims to fix that.



Here's a voice that's likely to become very familiar in coming months.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: The bottom line is this, masks work. And they work best when they have a good fit and are worn correctly.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walensky has long been a doctor on a mission, first to fight AIDS around the world and now to shore up the CDC and get the country through the pandemic. Carey Goldberg from member station WBUR in Boston introduces us to her.

CAREY GOLDBERG, BYLINE: On December 6, Boston doctor Katy Stephenson was watching TV with her family and scrolling through Twitter when she saw a tweet that made her shout.

KATY STEPHENSON: I said, oh, my God, you know, super loud. My kids jumped up. My husband looked over. He said, what's wrong? What's wrong? Is everything OK? I was like, no, no. Nothing's wrong. It's actually - it's the opposite. It's amazing. This is amazing.

GOLDBERG: Stephenson is an infectious disease specialist and vaccine scientist. So the news that Rochelle Walensky had just been tapped to lead the CDC had special meaning for her and for many jubilant colleagues around the country tweeting their joy. They'd all been helping each other through the brutal pandemic years, she says, but feeling like they got little to no help from the federal government.

STEPHENSON: It was so baffling. It wasn't even just that we didn't know what the government was doing. It was that sometimes, it felt like sabotage, like the federal government was actively trying to mess things up.

GOLDBERG: But throughout the past year, Walensky had been out front, Stephenson says, sticking to the science and telling the truth. And from the moment she stepped up to lead the CDC, Walensky has promised to keep telling the truth, even when it's bad news. She wasn't immediately available for an NPR interview. But she told the medical journal JAMA last month that she'll let the scientists at the CDC tell the truth, too.


R WALENSKY: They have been diminished. I think they've been muzzled. That science hasn't been heard. This top-tier agency, world-renowned, hasn't really been appreciated over the last four years and, really, markedly, over the last year. So I have to fix that.

GOLDBERG: And she'll have to tackle many other things, like pushing hard on the vaccine rollout and, ideally, rebuilding the public health system.


R WALENSKY: I do have service coursing through my veins.

GOLDBERG: Walensky's grandfather fought in World War II and eventually rose to be a brigadier general. When the Biden administration called on her to run the CDC, it felt like when a hospital alarm goes off to call for help for a patient in cardiac arrest.


R WALENSKY: I got called during a code. And when you get called during a code, your job is to be there to help.

GOLDBERG: At Mass General Hospital, some of her many admirers now have T-shirts that read answer the code with her initials, RPW, beneath. The shirts are part of an outpouring of affection in Boston biomedical circles and beyond that greeted Walensky's appointment, including bouquets of flowers - lots of bouquets that her husband and three sons helped answer the door to accept.

LOREN WALENSKY: At one point, one of my sons said, you know, Dad, we should just, you know, open a flower shop at this point.

GOLDBERG: Her husband, Dr. Loren Walensky, researches and treats children's blood cancers at Boston Children's Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He calls Rochelle his Wonder Woman and still remembers when he first saw her 30 years ago in the cafeteria of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where they were both students.

L WALENSKY: She stood out. And one of the reasons why she stood out was because she stands tall. Rochelle is six feet tall.

GOLDBERG: After medical school, Rochelle Walensky trained in a hospital medical unit so tough it was compared to the Marines. It was the mid-'90s. And the AIDS epidemic was still raging. She saw many people die. And then, a few years later, she saw the advent of HIV treatments that could save patients if they could get access to testing and care. Loren Walensky recalls coming home one time to find her sitting at the kitchen table working on extremely complex math. She was starting to expand from patient care to bigger-picture questions of money and equity.

L WALENSKY: And it was like a switch went off. And she just had this natural gift for this style of, you know, testing whether if you did X, would Y happen? And if you did X with a little bit more money, then how would that affect Y? - and all of these if-thens.

GOLDBERG: She started doing more research, for example, on ways to get more patients tested and treated for AIDS even in the poorest countries. One of her most prominent papers calculated that HIV drugs had given American patients at least 3 million more years of life. If she had a Wonder Woman superpower, it was using data to inform decisions and save lives. It came in handy over the last year, as Walensky helped lead the pandemic response for her Boston hospital and from Massachusetts. Back in April, when a huge surge of cases hit, she didn't deny the pain.


R WALENSKY: We are experiencing incredibly sad days. But we sort of face every day with the hope and the vision that what we will be faced with, we can tackle.

GOLDBERG: She kept publishing on key pandemic topics like college testing and antibody treatments. And she weighed in often and publicly from Twitter to TV. Now she's being asked about the Biden plan to get 100 million shots into Americans' arms in 100 days. Will that restore a sense of normalcy? She was pretty blunt with CNN, a quality that could cause trouble in these polarized times.


R WALENSKY: I told you I'd tell you the truth. I don't think we're going to feel it then. I think we're still going to have - after we vaccinate 100 million Americans, we're going to have 200 million more that we're going to need to vaccinate.

GOLDBERG: Walensky is facing a historic challenge, leading an agency where she's never worked. But Boston colleagues say they have no doubt she'll make the transition from leading an infectious diseases division of 300 staffers to a public health agency of about 13,000. Elizabeth Barks is the division's administrative director.

ELIZABETH BARKS: I would lie down in traffic for her. And I think our entire division would lie down in traffic for her.

GOLDBERG: She says Walensky brought a plaque from her desk in Boston to CDC headquarters in Atlanta. The plaque says hard things are hard. It will be hard. Less than a month into the job, Walensky is already getting blowback on the difficult issue of how and when schools should reopen.

For NPR News, I'm Carey Goldberg in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF OF WATER'S "ANY GIVEN PLACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.