CDC's New Chief Led Georgia's Public Health Department

by | July 10, 2017

By James Salzer

The Trump administration has picked the head of the Georgia Department of Public Health to run the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the Department of Public Health commissioner since 2011, was formally announced Friday, a week after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported she was expected to be President Donald Trump's pick to run the agency.

"I am humbled by the challenges that lie ahead, yet I am confident that the successes we've had in Georgia will provide me with a foundation for guiding the work of the CDC," Fitzgerald said.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a former Georgia congressman, said, "Having known Dr. Fitzgerald for many years, I know that she has a deep appreciation and understanding of medicine, public health, policy and leadership _ all qualities that will prove vital as she leads the CDC in its work to protect America's health 24/7."

Gov. Nathan Deal, who thanked Fitzgerald "for her tireless work to promote the health and well-being of Georgia's citizens," quickly named Dr. J. Patrick O'Neal as the interim commissioner of the state's Department of Public Health.

O'Neal, the director of health protection for the agency, has overseen more than a dozen programs at DPH, including epidemiology, infectious disease, immunization, emergency preparedness efforts and the Georgia Public Health Lab. He previously practiced emergency medicine for 29 years at DeKalb Medical Center.

Fitzgerald, trained as an obstetrician-gynecologist, succeeds Dr. Anne Schuchat, who became the CDC's acting director in January after Dr. Tom Frieden resigned. The role is one of the most prominent in public health.

The position does not require Senate confirmation.

Fitzgerald inherits several immediate concerns and vexing long-term problems. Health officials have warned of a potential resurgence of the Zika virus, even though cases of the mosquito-borne illness have dropped sharply since last year. And the agency is the target of deep spending cuts under Trump's budget proposal. His budget draft would have cut the CDC's spending by $1.2 billion, which health experts warned could hamper the agency's disease-fighting efforts and immunization programs. Frieden called them "unsafe at any level of enactment."

Lawmakers in May ended up approving a small funding increase for the CDC over last year's levels, but some of that money was taken from an internal account that previously provided Georgia with roughly $20 million a year for immunization programs and other initiatives.

Fitzgerald is no newcomer to politics. She served as a health care policy adviser to U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, both Republicans. She twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress, in 1992 and 1994, both times as a Republican. Gov. Zell Miller appointed her to the state Board of Education in 1996 when he remade the board in hopes it would get along with the state's first Republican state school superintendent, Linda Schrenko. The chairman of that new board was Johnny Isakson, who is now Georgia's senior U.S. senator.

Fitzgerald has led the Department of Public Health since Georgia lawmakers carved it out as a separate agency after decades of consolidation with other departments. She has maintained a quiet profile in her post, which oversees a $671 million agency, though at times the job has put her in the spotlight.

She was the face of the Deal administration's effort to combat the spread of the Zika and Ebola viruses, and she helped reduce wait times for a program that provides lifesaving medications to thousands of uninsured Georgians with HIV or AIDS.

Fitzgerald drew headlines for a decision to rescind a job offer to a California physician initially offered a job as a North Georgia health director after reports surfaced about controversial sermons he made condemning gay rights and the theory of evolution.

She also came under fire after Deal said in late 2014 that he was comforted that Fitzgerald said "water kills the Ebola virus." She later pointed to media reports that showed Ebola can only survive a few minutes in water, but she acknowledged once the virus "gets in your body, it's mean."

Gingrich, who remains close to Fitzgerald, called her "smart, hardworking and deeply committed to fighting for sound public policies."

"I can't imagine anyone who would work harder or more intensely to help the American people in the vital role the CDC plays," he said.

Isakson, a member of the Senate committee that oversees the CDC, said Fitzgerald is a good fit for the job.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on the front lines of protecting Americans from outbreaks of dangerous diseases, like the Ebola and Zika viruses," Isakson said. "Much of the CDC's work involves partnerships with local public health authorities, and Dr. Fitzgerald's experience overseeing a multitude of health programs throughout Georgia's 159 diverse counties makes her an excellent choice to manage this critically important agency."

(c)2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)