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Jha to lead White House response as pandemic enters new phase

Departing Zients seen as crisis manager

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha is worried about congressional reluctance to approve additional COVID -19 dollars.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha is worried about congressional reluctance to approve additional COVID -19 dollars. (Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients is leaving his post at the helm of the administration’s virus response effort, and Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, will replace him as the U.S. navigates a new phase of the pandemic, the White House said Thursday.

Jha’s role coordinating the pandemic response signifies a shift to a more endemic phase of the pandemic. Zients is a rapid response communications expert with experience handling crisis situations, whereas Jha is a respected physician and public health expert who has been studying pandemic policy and briefing reporters on COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.

“As COVID enters a phase where it becomes a persistent risk requiring a new public health footing, Dr. Ashish Jha has the broad clinical expertise, and deft touch in addressing public health needs, to galvanize shared action and shape that future,” former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said of the transition in leadership.

Jha will begin his new role in April and take a temporary leave from his role at Brown.

When Zients became the administration’s COVID-19 coordinator in January 2021, less than 1 percent of the country was fully vaccinated. Today over 65 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and over 960,0000 Americans have died of the virus. Public health experts largely expect the country to move into a new stage of the pandemic, as masks come off and people return to normal routines.

The White House warned its job in combating COVID-19 is far from over, even as case counts and hospitalizations let up.

“We must fight the virus overseas, prepare for new waves, and new variants — all of which can be coming. And we must work with Congress to fund these vital steps, as time is running out to stay ahead of the virus,” the White House said in a statement.

Zients’ departure also comes as the administration works to get Congress to appropriate $22.5 billion to fund the next stage of the COVID-19 response. The White House has warned that without more funds, the nation’s supply of COVID-19 monoclonal antibodies, therapeutics and tests will soon begin to dry up.

The House is looking at a $15.6 billion package, less than the White House says it needs, and Democrats are still searching for offsets. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday he still hopes the chamber will vote on it this week. 

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