President Donald Trump is expected to tap the head of the Georgia Department of Public Health as the new director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to two administration sources.
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald is said to be deep in discussions to lead the sprawling agency, according to sources who requested anonymity to discuss confidential details. They stressed the negotiations were not finalized and that several administrative hurdles remained before an official announcement is made.
Fitzgerald would succeed Dr. Anne Schuchat, who became the CDC’s acting director in January 2017 after Dr. Tom Frieden resigned. The role is one of the most prominent in public health and in metro Atlanta: The CDC has thousands of employees and several campuses across the city.
Trained as an obstetrician-gynecologist, Fitzgerald has served as the commissioner of Georgia’s public health department since her 2011 appointment by Gov. Nathan Deal and oversees a range of health programs, including the state’s emergency medical response and infectious disease and immunization initiatives.
Fitzgerald did not respond to requests for comment.
If she’s tapped for the position, which does not require Senate confirmation, Fitzgerald would inherit several immediate concerns and vexing long-term problems. Health officials have warned of a potential resurgence in the Zika virus, even though cases of the mosquito-borne illnesses have dropped sharply since last year.
And the agency is the target of deep spending cuts under Trump’s spending proposal. His budget draft would have cut the CDC’s budget 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 advisor to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, both Republicans. She twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress, in 1992 and 1994, both time 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’s 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 helped reduce wait times for a program that provides life-saving medications to thousands of uninsured Georgians with HIV or AIDS.
Fitzgerald also 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 acknowledged once the virus “gets in your body, it’s mean.”
Gingrich, who remains close to Fitzgerald, called her “smart, hard-working 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.
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Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this report