President Biden on Thursday named a practicing physician known as a gifted communicator to be the next leader of the nation’s coronavirus response, seeking to help Americans navigate their return to work, school and other activities as the United States heads into a new, if still uncertain, phase of the pandemic.
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, will replace Jeff Zients, the management expert who has steered the Biden administration’s pandemic response for more than a year, the president said in a statement Thursday.
Jha, a highly visible expert on cable television and other media, had increasingly become an adviser to the White House in recent months, with officials praising him for his pragmatism and ability to speak to a variety of audiences. Administration officials have sometimes faced withering criticism for unclear and confusing messages about when to wear masks, when to return to work after a coronavirus infection and other recommendations that have led some Americans to lose faith in government pronouncements.
Biden’s decision to tap Jha as coronavirus coordinator also reflects the administration’s belief that the pandemic is moving to a new stage where the White House must explain to Americans how to navigate some level of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, much as it does for other respiratory viruses — a reality underscored by the increasing number of cases overseas and indicators of more virus picked up in recent wastewater tracking in this country, officials and allies said.
In a Twitter thread Thursday, Jha warned of complacency in combating the pandemic and laid out goals for coming months.
“Let’s keep our eye on the ball,” he wrote. “Prepare for surges and variants. … Work to ensure that schools, work, and other places of gathering remain safe. … Vaccinate the world.”
We are not done— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) March 17, 2022
We are very likely to see more surges of infections
We may see more variants
We can’t predict everything with certainty
But we have to prepare to protect the American people whatever Mother Nature throws at us
Biden profusely praised Zients in a statement Thursday morning, saying that the departing coordinator had “put his decades of management experience to work formulating and executing on a plan to build the infrastructure we needed to deliver vaccines, tests, treatment, and masks to hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican chair of the National Governors Association, also described Zients as an “excellent partner” in fielding states’ requests to get more tests, monoclonal antibody treatments and other supplies to fight the pandemic.
In their first conversation, Zients “gave me his cellphone number, and he’s always been available and responsive,” Hutchinson said, estimating he subsequently had “dozens” of calls with Zients, including late at night and on weekends. But Hutchinson demurred on whether he wanted Jha’s cellphone number, too. “We’ll see whether that’s needed,” he said.
The change in coronavirus coordinators comes at an inflection point in the pandemic, with confirmed cases plunging from more than 700,000 per day at the mid-January peak of the omicron wave to about 33,000 per day now, according to The Washington Post’s rolling seven-day average. Administration officials are seeking to balance a weary nation’s desire to return to some semblance of normalcy after five viral waves have claimed nearly a million lives, while protecting the most vulnerable from infection.
If the virus surges again, “it can’t be the kind of thing that sidetracks the country,” said Andy Slavitt, who served as a senior adviser on the response before stepping down last year. “We’re going to need to mount a response — but we have to do it in a different way than we did over the course of 2020 and 2021, when it became an all-consuming thing.”
But Jha is set to inherit challenges that the White House is facing over its strategy and public communication. Senate Republicans are balking at an additional covid funding package, insisting the Biden administration first account for trillions of dollars in prior spending on the response.
Administration officials have warned that they desperately need the funding to purchase tests, treatments, vaccines and other supplies to combat the virus, with Zients personally calling Republican senators to urge them to support the package.
“We need dollars today to buy the products that we’ll need in a few months,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the nation’s current stockpile of coronavirus supplies. “If that money doesn’t come, and a new variant comes instead, we won’t be ready.”
For instance, U.S. officials say they will be forced to cancel a planned order of additional courses of AstraZeneca’s monoclonal antibody, Evusheld, which has helped protect immunocompromised people from covid-19. It requires six months to manufacture, and officials say they must ration their remaining doses.
Some public health experts also have panned the administration for its messaging and decisions that they say have failed to protect those most at risk for severe disease, faulting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent guidance that led many Americans to remove their masks, although others said that new metrics were appropriate for this phase of the pandemic.
A few covid experts questioned whether Jha — a longtime academic and government outsider — was equipped to secure more pandemic funding from congressional naysayers or to navigate other bureaucratic infighting.
“The skills we need now are management of fiscal and legislative issues,” said one state health official, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing the administration. “You need a Washington insider. We need a person who makes the train run on time.”
Biden met in person with Jha last week as he weighed whether to choose him to replace Zients, said two administration officials with knowledge of the meeting. The White House had increasingly incorporated Jha’s advice, including in the pandemic road map that Biden released this month.
“Dr. Jha is one of the leading public health experts in America, and a well-known figure to many Americans from his wise and calming public presence,” Biden said.
Jha will also be the first person of color to lead the response to a pandemic that has taken a significant toll on communities of color.
Biden, in his statement, touted gains made under Zients’s leadership of the pandemic response.
“When Jeff took this job, less than 1 percent of Americans were fully vaccinated; fewer than half our schools were open; and unlike much of the developed world, America lacked any at-home coronavirus tests,” Biden said. “Today, almost 80 percent of adults are fully vaccinated; over 100 million are boosted; virtually every school is open; and hundreds of millions of at-home tests are distributed every month.”
Officials said that Zients, who oversaw an unprecedented drive to vaccinate tens of millions of Americans, had planned to serve as coronavirus coordinator for about six months but that successive surges, first by the delta variant last summer and then by the omicron variant in November, led him to extend his role.
“We are all very sad that he is leaving,” said Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser. “He really is a terrific person and extremely competent and effective.”
Natalie Quillian, Zients’s deputy, will also be leaving the administration next month after working to coordinate surge responses across the country, international vaccine donations and the drafting of the administration’s covid strategies. Other officials on the team may similarly depart in the coming weeks, with many having worked intensely on the covid response for more than a year, according to four people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal staffing plans.
Zients was a business executive before joining the Obama administration as a senior management and budget official in 2009, and was then tapped in 2013 to help oversee the repair of HealthCare.gov, the broken federal health insurance website. Zients went on to lead the National Economic Council and later served as a co-chairman of Biden’s transition team.
From his perch in the White House, he built out a team of several dozen officials who absorbed much of the pandemic-response portfolio that would have gone to the Department of Health and Human Services in previous administrations, a structure that sometimes contributed to confusion and tensions over who had decision-making authority but also won praise for centralizing the response.
Zients “was the right person in the right place at the right time,” wrote Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner during the Trump administration. “He got us through a hard period of covid by leveraging his deep expertise in using the tools of government to advance health.”
But Zients had become a target of liberals — including several dozen protesters who gathered outside his house last Friday — who criticized him as doing too little to combat the global pandemic and called for his firing.
“Zients failed and the world paid the price,” Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, said in a statement, citing the low vaccination rates in developing countries. The White House defends its strategy, saying the United States has donated nearly 500 million doses of vaccine to other countries, far more than any other nation.
Tyler Pager, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.