New CDC head: Georgia’s health commissioner

The Georgia health commissioner, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, has been selected as the new director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Having known Dr. Fitzgerald for many years, I know that she has a deep appreciation and understanding of medicine, public health, policy and leadership,” said a statement by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who nominated Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald, an obstetrician-gynecologist, was appointed to lead the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) in 2011 by Governor Nathan Deal. While there, she oversaw programs to combat childhood obesity, increase vaccination rates and track Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to the DPH.

Her tenure as health commissioner was also marked by several high-profile cases of Americans infected with the Ebola virus, who were flown to Atlanta for treatment.

“Ebola was arriving in our own backyard in Atlanta, and with it came the fears,” Fitzgerald wrote in the Journal of the Georgia Public Health Association. “The fiction and distorted truths about Ebola were spreading faster than the disease itself — and farther.”

Under her stewardship, the DPH developed a plan for monitoring and testing people who risked being exposed to the virus. The department also sought to provide information on Ebola to the public. However, confusion emerged when Governor Nathan Deal claimed that water killed the Ebola virus — an incorrect statement he attributed to Fitzgerald, who advocated for handwashing.

“She admits she misinformed me as she briefed me initially, but she is a very competent individual,” Deal said during a 2014 gubernatorial debate.

While handwashing is an important part of preventing the spread of the Ebola, water and regular soaps are not thought to inactivate the virus itself. Researchers note that there is limited research specifically on handwashing and the Ebola virus.

Fitzgerald ran for Congress in 1992 and 1994 and lost both times. She ran as a Republican to represent Georgia’s seventh district.

During her 1994 run for Congress, which she lost to Bob Barr in the primaries, abortion emerged as a major issue. Fitzgerald denied that she had ever performed abortions, despite her opponent suggesting otherwise, according to reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She said that she supported certain restrictions on abortion, such as parental notification, but that ultimately the decision should be made between a woman and her doctor, the AJC reported.

Fitzgerald has written several guest columns for the AJC, covering topics such as Georgia’s cannabis registry and early immunization.

“As a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, I have seen the devastating and painful effects of whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” she wrote for the AJC in 2014. “I am a mother. I am vaccinated.”

Fitzgerald received her medical degree and completed her training at Emory University. She is also a major in the US Air Force and previously served as a health care policy adviser for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to her biography.

The CDC currently faces a 12% funding cut under the Republican health bill. This is due to the proposed elimination of the Prevention and Public Health Fund, whose funding under the current law is expected to rise from $900 million in 2018 to $2 billion in 2025, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Fitzgerald will succeed acting director Dr. Anne Schuchat, who took over when Dr. Tom Frieden resigned from the post in January.

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