CDC’s Early Face of the Pandemic Resigns

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Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, and a figurehead of the agency during early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, announced on Friday that she is resigning from her position.

Her resignation is effective May 14, according to the New York Times.

Messonnier held her position for 5 years, beginning in April 2016, and is arguably most well known for being the face of the agency during the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic before it reached American shores.

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She held her first briefing on the novel coronavirus with the media on Jan. 17, 2020, where she said that public health screenings would begin at three major U.S. airports receiving travelers from Wuhan, China. At the time, she characterized the risk to the American public as “generally low.”

“For families sitting around the dinner table tonight, this is not something they need to be worried about,” Messonnier said at the time.

Throughout January and February, Messonnier led frequent media briefings on the status of the novel coronavirus outbreak as travel-associated cases trickled in to the U.S. She helped brief the media on the first U.S. case of community transmission and fielded questions about early snafus with COVID-19 test kits.

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However, it was her Feb. 25, 2020, briefing that drew the most national attention, as she warned that community-based coronavirus transmission in the U.S. was inevitable, and urged businesses, communities, and families to start making preparations for remote-based work and school.

“I had this conversation at the breakfast table. I told my children I didn’t think we were at risk right now, but we as a family need to start preparing for significant disruptions to our lives,” Messonnier said in February, a stark contrast to her words a month earlier.

Her frank assessment of the situation caused the stock market to plummet, and was said to anger White House officials, including President Trump, who formed a “Coronavirus Task Force” shortly afterwards, led by Vice President Mike Pence.

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CDC calls declined in frequency thereafter, as the White House Coronavirus Task Force took over daily COVID-19 briefings.

Messonnier was still a fixture at Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meetings until recently. She was present at the meeting in December where ACIP voted to add COVID-19 vaccines to the 2021 adult and child/adolescent immunization schedule.

“I know you share with me [the] burden of the responsibility of this moment,” she said. “We look to this committee to be scientifically driven and transparent and you have certainly fulfilled that responsibility.”

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Messonnier was not present at the most recent ACIP meetings in April surrounding the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine “pause” and reinstatement of the vaccine.

She started her career in public health in 1995 as an epidemic intelligence officer for the CDC. The Times reported that Messonnier will become executive director at a philanthropic organization called the Skoll Foundation, based in Palo Alto, California.

At a White House COVID-19 briefing on Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, characterized Messonnier as a “true hero through her career” in public health.

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“She’s been a steward of public health for the nation over this pandemic and through a many decade career, she’s made significant contributions and she leaves behind a strong force of leadership and courage in all that she’s done,” Walensky said. “I want to wish her the best in her future endeavors and I have no other comment.”

The Times and other outlets have reported that Walensky has been aiming to “completely reorganize” the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Washington Correspondent Shannon Firth contributed to this story.

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Last Updated May 07, 2021

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    Molly Walker is deputy managing editor and covers infectious diseases for MedPage Today. She is a 2020 J2 Achievement Award winner for her COVID-19 coverage. Follow

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