Meet the nurse leader tasked with revamping CDC

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, tapped Mary Wakefield, PhD, to lead a major revamp of the agency that prioritizes future public health responses after the shortcomings of the COVID-19 response. 

While Dr. Wakefield declined to speak to Kaiser Health News, the agency spoke to several of her associates who "painted a rich picture" of her leadership style. 

"She has high standards, and she'll expect people to perform," Brad Gibbens, a former employee of Dr. Wakefield and acting director of the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told Kaiser Sept. 6. "She's very fair, but you need to know what you're doing."

Mr. Gibbens said Dr. Wakefield also has "infatigable amount of energy," recounting instances of him arriving at work with messages on his phone left by her at 4:30 in the morning. 

In addition to her experiences as a nurse, Dr. Wakefield led the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of HHS, during the majority of the Obama administration. 

Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius referred to her as a "change agent" and said her experiences with HRSA will be helpful to her role at the CDC. Sheila Burke, head of public policy at the law firm Baker Donelson, told Kaiser Dr. Wakefield's experiences working with Congress will also aid her in navigating the new role. 

Dr. Wakefield's brother and two of his children were killed in a car accident in 2005. Her boss at the time, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), co-sponsored the Wakefield Act, a bill aimed at improving emergency medical care for kids. Even though it didn't pass, Dr. Wakefield wrote in the Journal of Forensic Nursing that it emphasized the importance of public policy.

"They acknowledged my family's loss and put their support behind legislation that can affect the lives of children of other families who may have a chance at survival," Dr. Wakefield wrote. "Public policy is important — isn't it?"


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