Baldwin native Dr. Mandy K. Cohen was sworn in as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month as the agency faces a drop in trust among the public and difficulty in persuading pandemic-weary Americans to get the new COVID-19 vaccine booster early this fall.
The CDC was in the midst of the nation’s culture wars during much of the pandemic. It was criticized early on for what some considered overly restrictive recommendations on masking and other precautions, and was later criticized by some public health experts for what they viewed as a premature loosening of those recommendations. Polls found that the percentage of Americans who trust the CDC fell during the pandemic.
Cohen, 44, faces the challenge of trying to restore that trust. In a recent interview with Newsday, she said she plans to do that by increasing transparency, communicating more clearly and simply, and looking for ways to forge consensus.
Cohen also talked with Newsday about her Long Island roots, how her parents and Jewish faith instilled in her the values that led her to become a doctor, and how one of her focuses will be reducing rates of chronic diseases that are significantly higher than in other wealthy countries.
DR. MANDY K. COHEN
- HOMETOWN: Baldwin.
- EDUCATION: Graduated from Baldwin Senior High School. She received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, her medical degree from the Yale School of Medicine and a master’s in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health.
- EXPERIENCE: Executive vice president at Aledade, a network of independent primary care practices, and CEO of Aledade Care Solution. Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Chief operating officer and chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Acting director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.
- SALARY: Her position paid $183,100 a year in 2022, according to the website federalpay.org.
- PERSONAL LIFE: Married to Sam Cohen, with two daughters.
- CURRENT RESIDENCE: Atlanta, where the CDC is based.
As director, Cohen is the public face of the CDC. She oversees an agency that conducts scientific research, works in the United States and around the world to prevent the spread of emerging and other diseases, and communicates health information to the public. The agency has more than 12,000 employees, according to The Associated Press.
Cohen, who maintains a residence in Atlanta, is married to Sam Cohen, an attorney, and has two daughters.
This interview was edited for space, clarity and style.
What led to your early interest in health care? How much of an influence on that was your mom, Susan Krauthamer, who was an emergency room nurse practitioner?
Dr. Mandy K. Cohen: A huge, huge impact. I saw the health care system through her eyes. I would be at the supermarket and someone who she had helped in the emergency room last week, last night, would come over and thank her. I saw as a kid the impact that she was having on our community and on families that she didn't know.
I'd say also our Jewish values very much contributed to that [interest in health care]. One of the core Jewish values is tikkun olam, or to heal the world. And I watched my mom live that value and instill that in us as well.
I also want to give credit to my dad [Marshall Krauthamer]. My dad has been an educator [a guidance counselor and special education teacher in New York City schools] his whole career. It was really a combination of both of them going into careers that were service-oriented and thinking about, ‘How do I fit into making this world a better place?’ That was always what we talked about as a family.
You wear the Hebrew chai symbol, which means life. How important was your Judaism growing up on Long Island and in influencing your career?
It's a foundational value for me. I wear the chai, one, to connect me back to the Jewish roots, but also to connect me to my mom and to other strong women in my life. My mom gave it to me when I got into medical school.
Do you still visit Long Island?
Sure. My parents still live in Baldwin … and still get Newsday delivered.
We live in a very divided country. How can you confront the politicization of health care and the mistrust and distrust of not only the CDC, but of the medical establishment?
I had the opportunity to lead in North Carolina [as head of the state health department], and there we were able to build trust and build consensus on some key pieces of work to allow us to build a healthier state.
As I approach this work at the CDC, that's what I'm looking to do, to find the places of consensus and make sure that we are acting in a way that builds trust, so that we are transparent, that we are communicating in a simple and clear way, that we are performing well, that we are doing the job that we are tasked to do, and do it well.
Do you have any examples of how the CDC in the past may not have been as transparent, or may not have done as much outreach, and what would you do differently?
I led through the COVID crisis in North Carolina, and there were times where we needed to make sure that our guidance was more simple, more clear than what we were seeing from the CDC. We made sure to be on TV a ton in North Carolina, so we could answer questions so that folks could know why we were making the decisions we were doing, what data we were looking at to make these hard decisions, constantly updating folks every day. Because the hard part about the COVID pandemic was, we were learning things every single day. Things were changing. But you needed to rapidly communicate that to folks.
You'll see me do a lot of communications as head of CDC in order to build that trust and be as transparent as we can.
For example, as we are doing our work, you're going to see a lot more video explanations of what we're doing, because not everyone goes and reads the CDC website. How do we think about making products that are meeting folks where they are, simple graphics that people can understand?
There's very low uptake of vaccine booster shots, on Long Island and nationwide. A new booster is expected in a few weeks. With less trust in vaccines in general, what do you do going forward, because boosters can save lives?
I'm going to start where you ended there, which is vaccines work, they're effective and they're safe. We are going to need to live with COVID. It is still here with us. And luckily, we have tools that can protect us.
The unfortunate part is that the protection that those vaccines give does decrease over time. And so we do need to make sure that our immune system continues to be as strong as it possibly can be, which is why folks have worked on a new shot. And what you're going to see is, like we have annual flu vaccines, we are likely going to be having annual COVID vaccines. There are folks who are older or have more chronic conditions, and they may need to get a shot more than once a year.
How do you combat some of the mistrust and distrust of vaccines?
I think it's foundational in how you build trust overall. It takes time. Some of that is the transparency, the simple communication, the good relationships, the good execution, and you build back the trust that you can.
As CDC director, you're obviously going to face harsh criticism no matter what you do. And a lot of it will be very public. Why take a job where you’re in a firestorm?
I'm going to try to focus on the places of consensus and protecting folks’ health. I took this role because of the incredible mission of the CDC to protect the health of this country and really the world, and what an amazing impact you can have in that kind of role.
You've met on Capitol Hill with both Republicans and Democrats. How do you sell the CDC, including to people from both parties?
I think folks understand that if we want to be a safe nation, we need an agency that is well-resourced to identify and respond to biologic threats.
At the same time, we also need to become a healthier country, in order to stay economically competitive, but also to fight off those threats. We did worse during COVID as a country because we were sicker going into COVID. Remember, COVID impacted those who had multiple chronic diseases. So if we had less chronic disease, we would have been healthier in fighting off COVID. We have to do both: Identifying and addressing threats, and preventing disease from happening.