CDC head aims to fix U.S. divisiveness about public health.

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At a time when public health guidance is increasingly politicized and divisive, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a plan to bring Americans back together.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, who took the helm at the agency in July, says the key to addressing health issues is to begin with topics people agree on and build a relationship across the aisle.

“This is a journey,” she said in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY. “There’s a lot of threats in the world, let’s start at the places where we have a lot of good agreement.”

This tactic worked in her previous job, running health and human services for the “purple” state of North Carolina. Cohen eventually expanded Medicaid, a polarizing issue in conservative states. She said she began the Medicaid conversation on Day One, but it took about seven years to get the project over the finish line.

During the early years, she invested time working with communities to tackle the opioid crisis and then moved on to reforming the Medicaid program.

“After that trust building and saying ‘we could do hard things together,’ we were able to take that step,” she said.

On a national level, Cohen has identified two broad topics where she thinks opposing parties will easily find consensus: Mental health and young families.

In the realm of mental health, Cohen is focused on reducing suicide and overdose deaths. The agency is investing in comprehensive data collection and analysis to understand where deaths are happening so it can provide evidence-based guidelines and best practices.

Data and information is where the CDC can “really shine,” she said. “You can’t solve problems you don’t fully understand.”

Cohen also wants to support young families by tackling maternal mortality, healthy pregnancies and deliveries, routine childhood vaccinations, food security and caregiver health.

By collecting data on chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, she hopes to aid prevention programs that will ensure parents are taking care of their health.

“Folks forget we are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” she emphasized. “We need a country that is healthy and that lifelong health begins early in life.”

After tackling health issues that both sides can back, she will have more cache on divisive issues like encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. 

What’s keeping the CDC director up at night?

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cohen said she has an eye on the next threat, ensuring the agency is prepared. She worries about another infectious disease that’s “highly transmissible” and “very severe” that “our bodies haven’t seen before” – akin to COVID-19.

“We’ve just been through a lot as a country and as a world – I’d like to not go there again,” she said.

One of the most vital lessons from the pandemic was how vital it is to be materially and logistically ready for the next big health threat. Once the science comes through with findings, it’s important to have supply chains lined up and people coordinated across agencies and the private sector.

When the next threat comes, it will be vital to have mass testing available to prevent transmission and to aggregate data to help shape public health decisions, she said.

“We were focused on the science and the transmission of the virus, but it’s all of those operational pieces of readiness that matter,” she said.

Cohen also emphasized the importance of messaging and building trust. She feels it’s critical that the agency communicate what it knows and is transparent about what it doesn’t know.

As North Carolina health secretary during the pandemic, she was on the news every afternoon to update the public and explain the reasoning behind major public health decisions.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons and I want to make sure those get embedded,” she said. “Trust is not just a feeling. It’s a tactical plan.”

Adrianna Rodriguez is a health reporter for the USA TODAY nation team. Contact Adrianna at [email protected] or @AdriannaUSAT on X.

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