CDC reorganization centers equity, data collection as priorities

Focuses on racial, economic and access disparities and inequities that affect health outcomes.
CDC Director of the Office of Health Equity Leandris Liburd poses for a portrait in a meeting room at the CDC, Wednesday, February 1, 2023, in Atlanta. Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

CDC Director of the Office of Health Equity Leandris Liburd poses for a portrait in a meeting room at the CDC, Wednesday, February 1, 2023, in Atlanta. Jason Getz /

Recent organizational changes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have elevated to the agency’s highest office the issue of health equity — where everyone, regardless of race and ethnicity, has the opportunity to achieve their healthiest self.

The move by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, which became effective on Feb. 8, emphasizes the need for robust data practices, paving the path for more timely public health emergency responses and for health inequities to be addressed at all levels nationally.

“Our goal is an “equity-centered” data system that accounts for social factors that have an impact on health, such as where people live, their environment, their income and jobs, the discrimination they face, and their access to health care,” Walensky said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Capturing and sharing a better picture of this country and its people will increase our understanding of differences and how we can effectively address them.”

Leandris Liburd, who served as the director of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity since 2011, will be acting director of the new Office of Health Equity, within Walensky’s office.

“I think this speaks to the priority that the agency is giving to addressing long-standing health disparities and also health inequities,” said Liburd. “We now have the opportunity as the science has increased, as we understand more about the drivers of health disparities, that we can also use our science to be more intentional about addressing those things.”

In August 2022, Walensky announced plans to reorganize the agency following widespread criticism about the agency’s pandemic response. From testing woes, public communications mishaps and data collection failures, Walenksy recognized the necessity to apply lessons learned during the pandemic to reshape the country’s foremost public health agency.

Health equity experts say missing data on the racial and ethnic impact of the pandemic will cause inequities for years to come, as written in STAT. As part of the CDC’s Moving Forward Initiative, a new Office of Public Health Data, Surveillance and Technology will also be created. Jennifer Layden, who oversees the agency’s data modernization efforts, will serve as acting director.

For many, the pandemic brought to the forefront structural and social barriers that often prevent communities of color from being the healthiest that they can be. These factors are called social determinants of health.

The CDC breaks down the social determinants of health into five domains that include: economic stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, neighborhood and built environment and social and community context. Some examples of these factors are transportation, income, access to healthy and nutritional foods and air quality.

Among the new approaches that will come with the formation of the Office of Health Equity is a intersectional focus on population groups that disproportionately experience health disparities. While continuing to consider racial and minority populations, the office will also expand its reach to people with disabilities, people who live in rural areas and the LGBTQ+ community.

“Let’s say that I’m not just Black, but I’m Black and female. I could be Black, female and live in a rural area,” Liburd said. “Those characteristics taken together will influence my health outcomes and the possibility for me to attain my healthiest self.”

During her tenure as director of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, Liburd worked to establish the social determinants of health component of the Healthy People 2020 and 2030 initiatives that set decade-long national objectives to improve health and well-being.

“It was something that I was very proud of because we went from not talking about it, not affirming it, to it really being taken up,” she said. “It shows how many people around the nation, practitioners, policymakers, who were really latching onto those social determinants of health.”

Liburd added that equity strategies must have significant community engagement, especially from the people most affected by an issue, along with comprehensive data that informs the strategy. She also said the efforts must be policy-driven to prevent the reoccurrence of inequity.

Walensky said various parts of the agency CDC have submitted health equity goals for studying the “drivers and impacts of social determinants on health outcomes.”

She also said that the agency will focus on ways to reduce the inequities that affect health, collaborating with “partners from multiple sectors” to help implement solutions.

Overall, Liburd said she views her new role as an opportunity to expand partnerships, increase impact and support ways to make a difference in communities.

“It’s more than a name change,” said Liburd. “It’s an intentional expansion of our focus and how we both understand and address health disparities, so that we are not leaving populations.”

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