CDC respiratory disease chief Nancy Messonnier has been reassigned from her position heading the agency’s Covid-19 vaccine task force, according to three people familiar with the move.
Messonnier is being absorbed into an incident management response team headed by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. But the situation remains fluid as CDC restructures teams under Walensky’s leadership.
An agency spokesperson said that the CDC vaccine task force was established separately from the Trump administration’s vaccine accelator, Operation Warp Speed, so that the federal response could more easily focus in on the task force’s recommendations. Now that vaccines are in use, the vaccine task force duties will be reassigned to Henry Walke, the director of the agency’s Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections.
Messonnier remains the top respiratory disease official at the CDC and is still employed by the agency, the spokesperson said. But three people with knowledge of the situation told POLITICO she has since taken leave from the CDC, and some of them characterized it as an unplanned vacation.
Messonnier has not yet responded to a request for comment.
A prominent respiratory disease scientist who has been at CDC for more than two decades, Messonnier led the CDC’s early planning for the nationwide distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
The agency more recently has played a prominent role in the administration’s handling of safety concerns surrounding Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine. Its use was paused nationwide in the wake of reports of rare blood clots in a handful of women who received the shot. A CDC advisory panel will meet Friday for the second time in two weeks to debate whether and under what circumstances the shot should be made available again.
But Messonnier first rose to prominence during the Trump administration, where she angered top White House officials early in the pandemic by warning that its impacts could be “severe.”
“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” she said on Feb. 25, 2020, triggering a stock market dip as fears of a pandemic grew.
Messonnier clashed with the Trump administration over those comments, leading the administration to halt her regular press briefings and her appearances with the White House’s coronavirus task force. Former President Donald Trump threatened to fire her and publicly dismissed her dire projections.
Messonnier’s long public silence was supposed to end when President Joe Biden assumed office and strove to put more scientists at the forefront of the pandemic response. But she also had differences with Biden officials, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
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