CDC Deputy Director looks back on 33 years on the front lines of public health

In the COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center at the CDC Headquarters in Atlanta, empty except for a handful of essential staff members, Dr. Anne Schuchat is making the rounds, saying her goodbyes.

"I just feel so lucky to have found the CDC, and to have found public health," Schuchat says.  "I've always wanted to be a doctor, since I was about 8-years-old."

She was a 28-year-old internist when she came to the CDC in 1988 to train as a disease detective in the agency's Epidemic Intelligence Service, or EIS.

Schuchat expected to stay 2 years, she says, not 33.

"I just felt like I'd found home: the people, the work that we did, the impact we could have," she says.

For more than three decades, Dr. Schuchat was on the front lines of nearly every public health emergency the US faced: the anthrax bioterror attacks, the H1N1 flu, and the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

She was the inspiration behind Kate Winslet's character as a disease detective in the popular movie "Contagion."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says Schuchat will be missed.

"She's got incredibly good store of knowledge, fantastically good judgment and a high, high, high degree of integrity," Fauci says. 

Dr. Schuchat, Fauci says, has always been a doctor first.

"So, even though she's a public health person, a physician's duty is to care for patients, and she never forgets that's part of her identity," he says.

Dr. Richard Besser, the former interim CDC director and now CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has known Dr. Schuchat for 30 years.

"There is no one I've worked with at the CDC who embodied the spirit of public health, the mission of the agency, more than Anne," Dr. Besser says.  "She's one of the most brilliant epidemiologists I've ever met, and has dedicated her entire being to saving lives here and around the world."

Dr. Schuchat says she will miss the teamwork involved in public health.

"The he CDC family is just so committed to the mission," she says.  'It's part of the privilege of getting to work here, is that people really care about what we're doing."

But the agency, and the US public health system as a whole, Dr. Schuchat says, was not prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

"It was clear how many gaps we had, that the front line of our local and state public health needed more support, that the world has changed, and we're on a very fast cycle, and this virus was a really tough foe," she says.

The public health data systems used to track and predict what the SARS-CoV-2 virus would do next were outdated, Schuchat says, and the CDC had a hard time surging its lab capacity to test for the virus.

And, there months the world's top public health agency appeared to be sidelined.

"It was really difficult," Schuchat says, when asked about the political pressure on her agency.

The pandemic, she says, taught us some important lessons for the future.

"I think principal is that we can't neglect public health, that frontline state and local public health are critical to our defense," Schuchat says.  "And we don't know where the next emerging threat is going to start.  But, we need that capacity everywhere, not just where we live, but throughout the country, throughout the world."

Dr. Schuchat will be remembered as a public health giant, but also a mentor, Dr. Besser says.

"So, the legacy of Anne Schuchat in public health is going to continue for generations," Besser says. "It's going to continue in all of the people here and around the world that she has given herself to, and that gives me great hope and great optimism."

Schuchat says she has been planning to retire for several years, and she dismisses media reports of friction with CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

"So, I think it's a good time for me to move on, but with love and affection for the people that are leading the agency," Schuchat says.

She plans to take some time off with her husband to visit family before deciding what she will do next.

"It was very clear that she loved her job," Fauci says. "I think it was a mutual love affair.  She loved the CDC, but the CDC loved her."

Shuchat says she feels hopeful about where the CDC is headed.

"I think we have a great future," she says.  "I say 'we,' because, even though I'm going to leave, I will always feel like this is my home and this is my community."

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