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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He’s a pandemic pundit on TV. Now he’s the new White House coronavirus czar.

Ashish Jha of Brown University faces a test as he helms the national pandemic response.

Ashish Jha is now on the hot seat as the new White House coronavirus response coordinator. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Ashish Jha, the Ivy League doctor who begins this week as President Biden’s new coronavirus czar, has never held a full-time federal job, let alone one in the political crosshairs. Skeptics question his ability to navigate the toxic politics of Washington. Those who know Jha counter with stories like how he single-handedly short-circuited a Harvard faculty revolt.

Dozens of faculty members had filed into a conference room in December 2018, prepared to vote they had no confidence in the dean of the public health school, until Jha talked them out of it. As Harvard’s global health leader, Jha warned his colleagues that publicly airing their concerns would weaken confidence in the school, with consequences for them all. Instead, he took their complaints to dean Michelle Williams and attempted to quietly broker a solution, even though her removal could have opened a path for Jha to succeed her, said four people familiar with the situation.

Williams ended up staying but Jha did not, as his star dramatically rose during the pandemic: He became dean of rival Brown University’s public health school, was courted with job offers from multiple TV networks, commended by Fortune Magazine as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders for his online and cable-news commentary and, most recently, picked to oversee the nation’s sprawling coronavirus response.

Now, the amiable academic faces a real-world test of his pithy TV advice: If the government fails to secure enough vaccines and tests, forcing Americans into long waits, it’s his problem. If a new variant causes a sixth pandemic wave, or besieged hospitals cannot handle an avalanche of cases, those are his problems, too, and ones that can’t be explained away in a cable-news segment.

The longtime physician has admitted to friends that he’s never faced challenges like running a White House team and navigating the bitter partisanship that animates the nation’s capital. But his defenders say he’s more than well-equipped and point to episodes like the faculty rebellion, first detailed in a Harvard Crimson investigation, that they say show his political savvy and powers of persuasion, traits they insist will serve him in his new role, along with his pandemic expertise.

“He could just see these complex things playing out in a way that other faculty maybe couldn’t,” said Julia Adler-Milstein, a University of California, San Francisco medical professor and close friend of Jha, who said she discussed the events with him and other professors.

“Academia is pretty political in its own way,” added former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, who chose Jha to lead Harvard’s global health efforts in 2014, but said she had no details about the faculty revolt because she had stepped down earlier that year. “I think he’ll adapt well.”

Through a spokesperson, Williams declined requests for comment. Jha declined an interview request for this story and referred questions to the White House. The Washington Post interviewed more than two dozen of Jha’s colleagues, administration officials and other experts about his background and upcoming role, with many supportive but others skeptical.

Jha, who officially begins his role with a tour of TV morning shows on Monday, inherits significantly different challenges than the ones that confronted the White House last January, when cases and deaths were spiking, few Americans were vaccinated and lawmakers agreed the virus was the nation’s top priority.

Today, Congress is increasingly balking at funding the response, hindering the administration’s ability to secure additional vaccines, treatments and supplies and threatening to pause a global vaccination campaign. While U.S. infections have plunged from their record-breaking highs, health officials are still bracing for the prospect of a resurgent virus in the form of variants that might evade the protection from vaccines.

“Let me tell you something. If I were in Jha’s position, I’d be nervous as hell,” Philip Rocco, a Marquette University political science professor, said on a recent episode of “Death Panel,” a left-leaning health policy podcast, where the hosts spent more than an hour last month analyzing Jha’s comments, questioning his qualifications and prognosticating about his new role.

The administration also has faced criticism on all sides, from mostly Republican lawmakers who want more accountability for the trillions of dollars in pandemic spending, progressive advocates who worry federal guidance has moved on too quickly, and experts like Jha himself, who has often praised the White House response but repeatedly urged a different emphasis or messaging tack.

“I think the White House needs to get its messaging discipline together, needs to make sure that people are speaking from the same page,” Jha said on “Fox News Sunday” in January, criticizing officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration, among others, for sometimes offering conflicting guidance. “It would be enormously helpful to the American people if that messaging was more consistent.”

Now, it is his responsibility to shape that message in a job that was a crucible for his predecessors. Deborah Birx, the nation’s first coronavirus coordinator under President Donald Trump, was pilloried for failing to rein in his misstatements about the virus. Jeff Zients, the outgoing czar who Jha shadowed last week, faced pickets outside his house and calls to resign from advocates who said he failed to prioritize the global response.

White House officials and colleagues insist Jha is ready for the challenge, having informally advised the nation’s coronavirus response for months, counseled state officials, such as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), and girded in his new role by allies like Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff and Jha’s top booster in the administration.

“I think that Ashish really is the right person for where we are in the response right now,” Klain said in an interview, adding that Jha’s messaging skills and policy knowledge would be essential as “we transition to a new phase” of fighting the virus.

As the world enters a third year of the coronavirus pandemic, people wonder when and how it will end. History offers important lessons. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post)

Three administration officials working on the coronavirus response agreed Jha’s background as a public health expert and physician would allow him to foresee some challenges his predecessor missed.

“While Zients has executed quite a lot, what he really understood and reacted to is the political optics. And so when the lack of tests becomes a bad political optic, which it did in December, that is when we get testing strategy,” said one of those officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized. Jha “brings an understanding of the fundamentals” that Zients “never had.”

Outside experts praised Jha’s skills but worried that his talent for communicating difficult public health messages in accessible language might be used to play down the threat of the virus in an election year.

“The Biden administration has really seized on a narrative that it’s time for us to turn the page on the pandemic,” said Joshua Salomon, who leads the Prevention Policy Modeling Lab at Stanford University. “The problem is that we’re doing that at a time when the pandemic is very far from over. I would just remind people that in 2022, so far there have been almost 150,000 covid-19 deaths recorded and the administration seems to be actively encouraging us to see that as unremarkable.”

A ‘reluctant academic’

Jha, an immigrant who was born in India, has said he didn’t learn to speak English until he was 9 years old and his family had moved to Canada. But after relocating to New Jersey five years later, he became an honor roll student drawn to the most competitive institutions in the country, earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, medical and public health degrees from Harvard and a management consulting job offer from McKinsey, the last of which he turned down in 2001, opting to become a practicing physician at a Veterans Affairs facility instead.

Jha later joined the Harvard faculty, where he often described himself as a “reluctant academic,” even as he became known as one of the nation’s most prolific health policy researchers. “His office had no windows in it, a signal of where he was on the totem pole,” Adler-Milstein recalled of her first meetings with Jha when she was a young PhD student in 2006.

The two researchers bonded over their shared curiosity about why it was so hard to share patient digital health data, sparking a project that ultimately debunked claims about electronic health records and got them invited to testify before Congress on their findings. “Ashish senses where the hype or the narrative might be getting ahead of the measures of the data,” she said.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and an author who now leads global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, also frequently collaborated with Jha and praised his fresh thinking about old problems.

“Ashish was, and is, exceptional at the hard work of compiling, and extracting very complex data” to “see patterns and to understand the truth of what is happening,” Gawande said. He credited Jha’s insights on their 2011 study on how patients at the end of life frequently undergo unnecessary surgeries. “That was some of my earliest work around care at the end of life and underlay thinking that went on to become my book, ‘Being Mortal,’” Gawande said.

Jha also worked to translate his research findings into action, whether as a senior adviser to the Department of Veterans Affairs or in other forums. Adler-Milstein described how Jha, at a meeting a decade ago, convinced an international coalition to adopt a shared way to measure health data progress around the world, but a representative from Italy was balking at changing his country’s measurements.

Then the man went for a smoke break, and Jha saw his opportunity, following him out and leaning into the cigarette vapor, as he sought to make the decision by the coalition unanimous, which he did.

“He’s both the big national thinker, but he also super effective at those one-on-one relationships, where he can kind of see who might need a little extra convincing and how to do it,” Adler-Milstein said.

After being tapped to lead Harvard’s global health institute during the 2014 Ebola outbreak despite scant global health expertise, a choice that frustrated some of his Harvard colleagues with longer tenures, according to three faculty members who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Jha assumed an increasingly public role. He was one of the chairs of a panel that faulted the World Health Organization for its slow response to the Ebola cases surging in West Africa. He also began sounding the alarm about virus outbreaks, warning the world was unprepared for the next big one.

“The biggest global health threat … is pandemics,” Jha said on a Politico podcast in 2017. “It’s also pretty preventable, and we’re spending way too little time talking about it.” The work pulled Jha into the orbit of the Obama administration, where he offered advice to officials, and struck up a friendship with Klain, who served as the Ebola czar at the time and became a vocal supporter.

“Listen to @ashishkjha as if your life depends on it, because, well, it does,” Klain wrote on Twitter as the pandemic raged in April 2020.

Developing a reputation for accessible, often evenhanded media commentary, Jha’s profile soared as coronavirus cases exploded and he became a go-to expert for TV news and in hearings on Capitol Hill. In the days before the virus was first detected in China, Jha had fewer than 22,000 Twitter followers. Today, he has more than 343,000. After leaving Harvard to join Brown in 2020, three years after the school had first tried to hire him as dean, the public health school saw a spike in enrollments that outpaced its peers, which the Boston Globe dubbed “the Ashish Jha effect.”

“When we hired him, the pandemic hadn’t really got started yet and we had no idea that we were getting somebody who would have so much to contribute publicly,” Brown president Christina Paxson said in an interview. “It’s put the Brown School of Public Health on the map in a way that it hadn’t been before.”

Television networks like ABC, CNN and MSNBC tried to hire Jha as an exclusive contributor, too, said a person familiar with the efforts who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. The networks did not respond or declined requests for comment. But he remained a free agent, becoming a staple on the morning shows.

Bonding with the president

Television was also where Biden first discovered Jha, becoming a fan from afar. The president met him for the first time on March 9 in an Oval Office meeting slated for just 25 minutes as the Ukraine conflict, legislation and other priorities competed for Biden’s attention.

But the conversation ballooned to over an hour as they shared their perspectives on the pandemic, agreeing the virus, then in retreat, could soon surge back, said three people with knowledge of the conversation. Biden and Jha “really hit off when they met,” Klain said in an interview. “And it just kind of sealed the deal.”

Some experts contend that Jha, who has often echoed Biden’s positions while privately advising administration officials, has blind spots about how he regards a pandemic that continues to sicken vulnerable members of society.

“For me, it’s not really a question of personality but of policy. And I’m concerned that this doesn’t signal the covid policy reset that we urgently need,” said Anne Sosin, a health policy fellow at Dartmouth, calling for a renewed focus on protecting the most vulnerable, improving access to treatment and being more “data driven” about decisions like mask recommendations.

Jha also has faced accusations of coordinating with the administration, with critics pointing to his recent New York Times opinion piece that cheered the CDC for issuing new guidelines that gave cover to state and local decisions to roll back masking rules. The piece, which appeared several hours after the guidelines were released on Feb. 25, was swiftly amplified by the White House, as advocates alleged Jha was defending a policy they said would jeopardize the most vulnerable.

But the piece was conceived by an editor at the New York Times, who had encouraged Jha to finish the piece so it could run after the CDC announcement, according to four people familiar with the story and emails reviewed by The Post.

“We reached out to Dr. Jha based on his position at Brown University, and did not know of his future role in the Biden administration,” said Charlie Stadtlander, a spokesperson for the New York Times. “The timing of our publication was in relation to public reports of an expected upcoming announcement (a standard ‘news peg’), but scheduled in line with our own editorial calendar and not coordinated with anyone in the CDC or Biden administration, nor at the request of Dr. Jha.”

Looking toward the future

White House officials have said that Jha’s role is “temporary” but declined questions about its projected length, as did Paxson, the president of Brown.

Some friends and administration officials predict Jha could be embarking on a new career, depending on his success helping to manage the coronavirus response and his ability to bond with Biden. How that relationship plays out between a president who surrounds himself with longtime advisers like Klain and a new deputy fresh to the White House remains to be seen.

Gawande, his friend and fellow official, said that Jha had already absorbed a key management lesson of surrounding himself with the right people, as Jha looks for aides with strong government experience, who can shore up places where he is “incomplete” as a leader. He also predicted that Jha’s ability to deliver tough messages would translate to his new role in the White House.

“Government is about the art of the possible and navigating your way through a world where you have enormously conflicting values,” Gawande said, adding that Jha has been “communicating on contentious issues throughout the pandemic, in every atmosphere possible, Fox News, CNN, and willing to tell truths to all sides that can be hard for people to hear.”

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