New CDC Director Mandy Cohen and the Nursing Background that Inspired Her

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated July 12, 2023
    Dr. Mandy Cohen’s appointment as the new CDC director has implications for the future of nursing. The ANA and NCNA share their thoughts.
    Dr. Mandy Cohen speaking at a briefingCredit: TNS
    • Former secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH, stepped into the role of CDC director on July 1, 2023.
    • The daughter of a nurse practitioner, Cohen enjoyed a strong and productive relationship with the NCNA during her five-year tenure as the state’s health and human services secretary.
    • The NCNA and ANA anticipate a collaborative role with the new CDC director that may lead to productive policy and program development to address nursing concerns, such as staff shortages, working environment, and mental health.

    On May 5, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky announced she would leave her post at the end of June after serving in the position since 2020. On June 16, the Biden administration announced the intent to appoint Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH, as Walensky’s replacement.

    Throughout her career, Cohen gained experience in a variety of healthcare fields. But she was initially inspired to embark on the journey by her mother, an emergency room nurse practitioner.

    “She’s one of the most incredible clinicians I’ve ever known,” Cohen said in a news release. “Through her eyes, I first saw the impact that healthcare professionals make every day in the lives of their community. And that positive impact is why I charted my own career path into medicine.”

    The CDC’s mission is to protect Americans from a myriad of health threats. The agency coordinates responses to infectious disease threats and partners with other countries to reduce gobal morbidity and mortality rates. The agency seeks to create a place where people can live healthier, safer, and longer lives.

    Nurses, of course, are critical partners in all these efforts.

    Tina Gordon, MPA, CAE, FACHE, CEO of the North Carolina Nurses Association (NCNA), said Cohen’s tenure as secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) indicates she understands the challenges facing the nursing profession.

    “Dr. Cohen was a very collaborative and inclusive leader at NCDHHS, and this approach extended to her engagement with and for the nursing profession,” Gordon told NurseJournal. “Her mother is a nurse practitioner, so she is very familiar with the practice of nursing, including advanced practice.”

    These collaborations have taken on new importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2017, the American Nurses Association (ANA) announced a collaborative partnership with the CDC and nursing organizations to improve infection prevention and control education for frontline nurses. No one could have anticipated how prescient that would be.

    The CDC is not only concerned with infection control and prevention but also the factors that increase the risk of healthcare-associated infections and occupational injuries. These factors include staffing shortages, nursing mental health and burnout, and violence in the workplace. Each factor plays a role in how effectively frontline workers can respond to emerging infectious disease threats.

    As the world moves into a post-pandemic environment, the new CDC director will be faced with planning for the next infectious disease threat while establishing a stronger nursing workforce throughout the country.

    Who Is Dr. Mandy Cohen?

    Cohen is an internal medicine physician and public health expert with experience leading complex healthcare organizations. She had been a chief operating officer and chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) before joining NCDHHS.

    Cohen served as an adjunct professor in health policy and management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She finished her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York and received her MD from Yale School of Medicine. She completed her education with a master’s in public health from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and completed her internal medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

    Cohen comes to the CDC director position familiar with the negative impact that a nursing shortage has on patient care and outcomes in North Carolina, where she served from January 2017 to December 2021. According to a 2021 report, the state is projected to have a shortage of nearly 60,000 healthcare workers by 2026.

    Cohen described seeing inequities in the healthcare system through her mother’s eyes — and through the lens of the emergency room. From this experience, she came to understand that the country needed an equitable healthcare delivery system, which led to her career choices at CMS and NCDHHS.

    “I led the largest change to the state’s Medicaid program in its history — layering in investments in advanced primary care and integrated whole-person care, including mental health and the non-medical drivers of health,” she said in the release.

    After leaving NCDHHS, she took a position at Aledade, a medical practice consultancy specializing in value-based care.

    How Cohen May Positively Influence the Nursing Profession

    As CDC director, Cohen will have the capacity to promote and shape policies and practices that can positively influence the nursing profession.

    “Not only did she understand the important role of nurses in the delivery of healthcare, she understood the importance of including nurses in discussions and decisions impacting patients,” Gordon recalled. “She encouraged this from department staff, as well. Dr. Cohen reached out directly to NCNA on many occasions, seeking opportunities to gather our perspectives and engage our leaders in the work at the department. It was appreciated.”

    We also spoke with Tim Nanoff, MSW, vice president for policy and government affairs at the ANA, who said he was encouraged by Cohen’s track record and the potential for positive change in the nursing profession.

    “Dr. Cohen is a well-known and respected healthcare leader with a track record of bringing stakeholders together,” Nanoff said. “ANA looks forward to working collaboratively with her in her new role leading the CDC. Nurses have a vested interest in a strong public health system and a strong CDC to continue to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future challenges.”

    Gordon expressed similar optimism, viewing Cohen as a collaborative leader capable of building bridges.

    “Dr. Cohen was a very collaborative and inclusive leader at NCDHHS, and she proactively engaged with NCNA on a frequent and routine basis,” Gordon said. “This approach extended to her staff, as well, and has continued since her departure. NCNA’s working relationship with NCDHHS is stronger and closer today than it has ever been, and much of that is due to Dr. Cohen’s leadership.”

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Tina Gordon, MPA, CAE, FACHE

    Tina Gordon, MPA, CAE, FACHE

    Tina Gordon, MPA, CAE, FACHE, is the CEO of the North Carolina Nurses Association, the leading professional organization for North Carolina’s registered nurses. Gordon joined NCNA in 2006 after a diverse career in association management, government/political affairs, and leadership development. She is responsible for leading a team of eleven and working with the board of directors to spearhead all NCNA strategic initiatives to benefit the almost 8000 members of NCNA. Gordon is also one of the association’s registered lobbyists. She resides in Raleigh, NC, with her husband and two young children.

    Portrait of Tim Nanoff, MSW

    Tim Nanoff, MSW

    Tim Nanof, MSW, is the American Nurses Association vice president for policy and government affairs. Tim brings nearly two decades of advocacy experience to the role. Before joining ANA, Tim was the policy director for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and, before that, the lead federal lobbyist for the American Occupational Therapy Association. Tim is a graduate of the University of Maine and George Mason University and lives in Beallsville, MD, with his wife and two sons.