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Former North Carolina health official is picked to be new CDC director

FILE - Secretary of the North Carolina Department Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen speaks during a briefing on the state's coronavirus pandemic response Tuesday, Dec.22, 2020 at the N.C. Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. The White House announced Friday, June 16, 2023, that Cohen will be the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She succeeds Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who last month announced she was resigning effective June 30. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Dr. Mandy Cohen, a former North Carolina official, will be the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House announced Friday.

Unlike the last two people to serve as head of the nation’s top federal public health agency, Cohen has prior experience running a government agency: She was secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services from 2017 until last year. Before that, she held health-related jobs at two federal agencies.

“Dr. Cohen is one of the nation’s top physicians and health leaders with experience leading large and complex organizations, and a proven track-record protecting Americans’ health and safety,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

She succeeds Dr. Rochelle Walensky, 54, who last month announced she was leaving at the end of June. Cohen’s starting date has not been announced. Her appointment does not require Senate confirmation.

Walensky, a former infectious disease expert at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, took over at the CDC in 2021 — about a year after the pandemic began.

Cohen, 44, will take over after some rough years at the CDC, whose 12,000-plus employees are charged with protecting Americans from disease outbreaks and other public health threats.

The Atlanta-based federal agency had long been seen as a global leader on disease control and a reliable source of health information. But polls showed the public trust eroded, partly as a result of the CDC’s missteps in dealing with COVID-19 and partly due to political attacks and misinformation campaigns.

Walensky started a reorganization effort that is designed to make the agency more nimble and to improve its communications.

Cohen was raised on Long Island, New York. Her mom was a nurse practitioner. Cohen has a medical degree from Yale and a master’s in public health from Harvard.

She also has been an advocate. She was a founding member and former executive director of Doctors for America, which pushes to expand health insurance coverage and address racial and ethnic disparities. Another founder was Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general. The group formed in the midst of an effort to organize doctors into political action and support Barack Obama’s candidacy for president.

Cohen started working for the federal government in 2008 at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where she served as deputy director for women’s health services. She later held a series of federal jobs, many of them with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, rising to chief operating officer.

In 2017, she took the health and human services job in North Carolina. A top adviser to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Cohen was the face of her state’s response to the coronavirus, explaining risks and precautions while wearing a gold chain adorned with a charm of the Hebrew word for “life.”

Some residents dubbed her the “3 W’s lady” for her constant reminders to wear a mask, wash hands frequently, and watch the distance from other people. One man even wrote a country-rock ballad praising her with the refrain: “Hang on Mandy, Mandy hang on.”

In 2020, Cohen refused to support President Donald Trump’s demands for a full-capacity Republican convention in Charlotte with no mask wearing. Her office later said it would accommodate the GOP by relaxing the state’s 10-person indoor gathering limit, but it remained adamant about masks and social distancing. Trump ultimately moved the main events from Charlotte.

Cohen resigned the state post in late 2021, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family and pursue new opportunities. She then took a leadership post at Aledade Inc., a Maryland-based consulting company.