In an interview with Spectrum News, Dr. Mandy Cohen, the new Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that her agency is likely to come out with guidance in the fall that Americans should get an annual COVID-19 booster to protect against the coronavirus.
The new recommendation, which the agency is finalizing and is expected to announce in early September, is the first such guidance on how to protect against COVID-19 long-term.
“We’re just on the precipice of that, so I don’t want to get ahead of where our scientists are here and doing that evaluation work, but yes we anticipate that COVID will become similar to flu shots, where it is going to be you get your annual flu shot and you get your annual COVID shot,” Dr. Cohen told Spectrum News at the agency’s headquarters in Atlanta this week.
“We’re not quite there yet, but stay tuned,” Cohen added. “I think within the next couple of weeks, month we’re going to hear more from our experts on COVID shots.”
Dr. Cohen became a household name in North Carolina during the height of the pandemic, leading the Tar Heel State’s Department of Health and Human Services. She was lauded by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in North Carolina, as purple a state as it gets in this country.
Now she’s leading the CDC after the departure of Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President Joe Biden’s first pick to head the country’s top public health agency.
Despite the agency’s prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC has taken a hit in recent years in terms of public trust. A survey by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in the journal Health Affairs in March found that roughly a quarter of Americans have little-to-no trust in the CDC for health information, including 10% who do not trust the agency at all.
During the Trump administration, the agency was slammed for being politicized and moving too slowly on COVID-19, while it was criticized under President Biden’s administration for not communicating guidance clearly.
Now at the helm of the agency, Dr. Cohen wants to apply what she learned helming North Carolina’s COVID-19 response to the CDC.
“While we saw trust go down in lots of institutions, we actually saw trust increase in North Carolina,” Cohen told Spectrum News. “We measured trust in the Department of Health and Human Services and saw that increase.
“We still had respectful disagreement, but at least we’re having a respectful conversation about how to approach hard, hard topics,” she added.
When asked if there were things the CDC could have done differently, Cohen said that “folks have been very clear that the CDC did lose trust.”
“There were some early places where the CDC didn’t perform and execute in the way they needed to,” she added.
One factor that worries Dr. Cohen is vaccine distrust – particularly as the threat of the so-called “tripledemic” of COVID-19, influenza and RSV, continues to be an issue.
“I’m very worried about parents not vaccinating kids,” she said. “I got my kids vaccinated from the circulating viruses. There’s plenty of other things that are hard as parents that we can’t do. This is one we can do to protect our kids.”
Cohen said that she plans to focus on transparency, execution and building relationships with the public, health leaders and politicians – both Democrats and Republicans.
She has already met with individual lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The new push comes as House Republicans are aiming to make significant cuts to the agency’s funding, particularly when it comes to climate change initiatives and research on firearms.
“Just like we have a military to protect us here and around the world, we need a CDC that can protect us,” Cohen said. "We can’t see those cuts and have the national security assets we need here at the CDC,” she said.
In her first month on the job Cohen is doubling down on being an effective communicator, trying to create a camaraderie within the agency, while aiming to restore trust in the CDC.
When people hear CDC, Cohen says she wants people to think that “there’s a trusted partner who’s looking out for me, who’s looking out to protecting my health … good, accurate information that helps me with common sense solutions to protect myself, my family and my community.”