PREDICTIONS: CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky will “return” to Boston. Dr Fauci will be less visible; his “grand rounds” presentation style – “the next slide please” will not be part of the new messaging strategy.
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“As the Biden administration pushes into the next phase of the COVID pandemic, there will be a new face for the government’s response. And it’s a familiar one. In a statement, President Biden announced Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, will serve as the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator.
“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, nodding to Jha’s ubiquitous presence on cable news (and the public radio airwaves) throughout the pandemic…
Jha is an expert in disease research and public health policy
Jha is one of many outside advisers the White House consulted as it developed its roadmap for the next phase of the pandemic. He has been a proponent of using all available tools to help people return to the important things in life, like school and social interactions.
“No one thinks that the virus is going away,” Jha told NPR in an interview last month. “None of us think that we’ll never have another surge or another variant. So what’s the game plan so that we’re not caught off guard?”
And while he has been advising the White House, Jha has also been critical at times, for instance of how the administration has communicated with the public about shifting guidance. He thought it was a mistake last summer for the president to celebrate masks coming off in a way that made it seem like the pandemic was over and they would never need to come back. Of course, the delta wave soon followed.
Jha is a clear communicator, with a ready analogy. Like with masks, he says to think of them like a rain coat.
“You wear it when it’s raining. You take it off when it stops raining,” Jha told NPR.
“And if we think of masks in that way then, yeah, during surges, we should have masks. And everybody should be wearing them. And then when the surge ends, we should take off our masks,” he added…
The leadership shift comes as the administration moves into a new phase of its pandemic response, one that seeks to get more things back to normal after two years of crisis while staying vigilant for new variants and outbreaks.
That plan hit a road bump when the White House asked Congress for $22.5 billion in emergency spending to pay for it. Congress has thus far declined.
The White House said it will start to wind down a COVID-19 program that pays to test, treat and vaccinate people who don’t have health insurance and had to step back from plans to place another order for monoclonal antibody treatments.” (A)
“The move, announced Thursday, signals the administration’s view that we are moving into a new phase in the pandemic — one more focused on nudging Americans back toward normalcy…
In an interview on the “Today” show Friday morning, Jha warned that the pandemic is not behind us yet, but said he is ready to work on implementing Biden’s plan.
“The first order of business is the president has laid out a really comprehensive plan for how we prepare and it’s about executing on that plan,” Jha said. “It’s about making sure we have enough tests and vaccines and therapeutics and masks. It’s about vaccinating the world so that we can get this pandemic finally behind us. … That’s what I am going to be focused on when I join the administration.”
Jha also touched on the BA.2 variant that is on the rise in much of Europe saying he is “not expecting a big surge here,” but we need to pay close attention and make decisions based on data.
“Here’s what we know about BA.2. We know it’s a little bit more transmissible than BA.1, that subvariant of omicron that swept through America in January,” Jha said. “Our vaccines, especially if you’re boosted, provide the same level of protection. It’s not any more severe than BA.1.”
Data driven decisions are a theme with Jha — on the “Today” show he also said any decisions about another round of boosters should come based on complete data.
“What we know right now is getting those first two shots plus that booster, that third shot, that’s the most critical thing,” he said. “That’s how we protect lives. That’s how we keep people out of the hospital. That part is very, very clear. The data on the fourth shot, I’ve got to still examine it. We all have to look at it more carefully. … We want to see the full set of data and then make a decision after that.”” (B)
“A little over a year ago, the U.S. pandemic response was all about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The focus was on getting vials and needles to cities and towns, far and wide, as quickly as possible.
Jeff Zients was deemed the right man for the job of White House coronavirus response coordinator because he had a reputation as a savvy businessman who could cut bureaucratic red tape.
So on Thursday, when the White House announced Zients was stepping down in April and that Dr. Ashish Jha, a leading public health voice, would be the new face of the federal coronavirus response, it emphasized the recent shift in the nation’s pandemic strategy to a phase that’s more about preparedness and communication rather than maximizing operational effort.
Dr. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, initially stepped into the spotlight during the pandemic as a doctor with straightforward advice and predictions about the pandemic. He has at times been a daily presence on television, including on ABC News, and he’s been applauded for giving candid answers about what people should do to stay safe. On Twitter, his takes on the latest pandemic news have garnered him hundreds of thousands of followers…
For the White House, Jha’s popularity is a selling point in the face of a growing communications problem for the Biden administration, under whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been criticized for being too slow and vague in its guidance on issues like masking recommendations and quarantine timelines. And as the country moves away from masks, administration officials say Jha’s deft communication skills will be an important asset in light of a potential resurgence in cases from the BA.2 variant.
If mask guidance changes, Jha will be at the forefront of explaining why Americans should put them back on.
He’ll also be at the helm while experts at the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration consider whether Americans will need a second round of booster shots, and at what point shots will be authorized for those under five years old, which vaccine companies expect to happen sometime this spring.” (C)
“Chances are you’ve seen Ashish Jha during the pandemic, though you had never heard of him before. He seemed to come out of nowhere — bespectacled, professorial, his tie sometimes askew — and then he was everywhere, a fixture in living rooms across America.
It might have been the two minutes and 12 seconds with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday morning, those three questions from David Muir on Tuesday night, or the minute of dad-to-dad discourse he had with Louie, the goateed father of Sesame Street’s Elmo. Whatever the venue, Jha has been there, on your TV, live from Providence, R.I., with his now-familiar snake plant and that geometric, aquamarine painting as his backdrop.
At age 50, Jha has become America’s everyman expert on Covid-19.
He is not, for the record, a virologist, immunologist, or vaccinologist. (He has never claimed to be.) But he is a public health expert and a practicing internist, which means he has years of experience explaining complicated and often incomplete information to people who neither know nor care about the correct pronunciation of “adenovirus.” That’s who he imagines on the other end of his webcam.
“My mental model is it’s someone who’s the average American,” Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told STAT. “They’re smart. They care deeply about this. The pandemic has totally messed up their life. But they’re not experts. They don’t want to hear a debate about the R-naught. They want to hear what the new variants mean to them, when their kids might be eligible for a vaccine. That’s what people actually care about.”
TV bookers tend to agree. More than a year ago, when they were scrambling for fill-in Faucis, they learned not every subject-matter expert was a telegenic phenom waiting to be discovered, and not every gifted communicator was willing or able to field the crushing number of requests. But Jha — alongside experts like Baylor College of Medicine virologist Peter Hotez and New York University infectious disease physician Céline Gounder — seemed to fit the mold.
At the height of his stardom, over the summer, he was doing 10 to 12 TV appearances a day, though he’s pared back to about four or so now.
“The difference between two doctors with the same training may be negligible, but can someone go on TV and break it down for people in a way that’s understandable?” said Annie Scranton, a former booker for cable news who now runs Pace Public Relations. “You have to give the facts, but you also have to come across as a person, not just like a scientific robot.”
“These doctors and scientists are total rock stars now,” Scranton said, “and rightfully so.”
Jha’s appearances began as a corrective to the Trump administration, when the White House response ranged from silence to pondering the merits of disinfectant injections. Since then, he has done thousands of TV hits, and his name has been mentioned some 60,000 times on network and cable news, according to the media monitoring firm TVEyes. He doesn’t get paid for any of it.
Nor is he compensated for time spent on social media. More than 200,000 people follow Jha on Twitter, where he replicates his unhurried speech with threads that make liberal use of line breaks, like if William Carlos Williams took to epidemiology.
Still, all of it will end, Jha said. At some point.
“The day I feel like I’m not being helpful, I will stop,” Jha said. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh, good, I have a bunch of [TV interviews].’ But I think this is part of my job right now. This is what the country needs: people to help translate the complex science, and as a public health person, this is my obligation.”..
“Communication is not just what you say,” Jha said. “It’s how people hear it.” For instance, in January, when Muir asked Jha whether vaccines for Covid-19 could prevent transmission of the virus. An easy — and accurate — answer would be “We don’t know.” But to Jha, that’s likely to resonate as a probable “No” in the ears of the audience. His method: walking through the evidence that suggests they can, providing the caveats that pervade all scientific inquiry, and concluding with the best guess that vaccines indeed stem the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
“My take is people are not looking for certainty. People are looking for judgment,” he said. “And it’s fine to give judgment as long as you’re not overstating the data.”
Jha has kept the cards of his notes and speeches for speaking engagements since he started at Brown in September 2020.
The fact that Jha has established his own bright lines reflects a truism in media: Expertise is often policed by the experts themselves. And not all experts have an equal shot of getting media attention.
Words like “Harvard,” “Yale,” and “Brown” can carry outsized weight in the mind of a journalist looking to confer some credibility to a given story. It also so happens that the universities with the biggest endowments tend to have the best-funded and most active PR departments, filling the inboxes of reporters and producers with bullet-pointed lists of the Ivy League experts standing by to explain news of the day. And within that framework, universities decide which faculty members to feature, who to pull aside for media training, and who can take time away from the lecture hall.” (D)
“A flurry of high-profile coronavirus cases in the nation’s capital — including in people who have been around President Biden — has raised new questions about the trajectory of the two-year-old pandemic, even as the White House has signaled confidence in the country’s ability to resume normal activities.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden canceled face-to-face meetings with Prime Minister Micheal Martin of Ireland after the prime minister received a positive result from a coronavirus test during a gala event on Wednesday night that both men attended.
In the past week, Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, tested positive for the virus, as did former President Barack Obama. At least nine House Democrats received positive tests this week after a party retreat in Philadelphia and late-night voting at the Capitol.
White House officials said Mr. Biden, 79, had not been in close contact with anyone who tested positive and did not appear worried about his safety. They said that the administration was monitoring a highly transmissible subvariant known as BA.2, which is spreading rapidly in parts of China and Europe, but that there appeared to be little reason to think there would be a U-turn back to social distancing and universal mask wearing in the United States.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday that the nation was in a better position to combat the new variant because of the number of people who have been vaccinated and the quality of the vaccines used.
“It has been circulating here for some time,” Ms. Psaki said of BA.2. She noted that China had not used mRNA vaccines like the ones made by Pfizer and Moderna, calling it “an important component” of why caseloads are so high there.
But the recent cases in Washington, and the spread of yet another variant around the world, highlight a challenge for Mr. Biden and his team: how to embrace the country’s desire to move on while being careful not to declare victory over a virus that is still making people sick and killing more than 1,000 Americans each day.
“Just because Covid isn’t disrupting some of our lives in certain communities as much as it was a few weeks ago, it doesn’t mean it’s gone,” Ms. Psaki said. “It’s not gone. And I think this variant is an example of that.”
The tension over how to approach this juncture of the pandemic was evident in a statement announcing the departure of the president’s coronavirus response coordinator on Thursday.
Mr. Biden said the United States had entered “a new moment” in the fight against the virus and acknowledged the pleasure that many people were feeling as they emerged from more than two years of fear and anxiety.
“Americans are safely moving back to more normal routines, using the effective new tools we have to enable us to reduce severe Covid cases and make workplaces and schools safer,” Mr. Biden said.
But he quickly added, “Our work in combating Covid is far from done.”
That work includes persuading lawmakers in both parties to approve billions of dollars to continue fighting the virus. Administration officials say the money would be used to replenish supplies of vaccine, masks and new viral drugs used to treat Covid.
Jeffrey D. Zients, the departing coronavirus response coordinator, insisted this week that the additional money for Covid “is not nice to have; this is need to have.” But a bipartisan agreement between lawmakers and the White House to repurpose money that had already been approved for states fell apart when some Democratic lawmakers refused to go along.
The difficulty of passing a new Covid spending package underscores how much the national attitude has changed since the pandemic began. A year ago, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan included more than $178 billion for vaccinations and other Covid-related health care expenditures. Now, Mr. Biden is struggling to make the case for much less.
At the White House on Thursday, Ms. Psaki said Mr. Biden tested negative for the virus on Sunday and continues to be tested at least once a week, but had not done so since the disclosure of the Irish prime minister’s test.” (E)
“Scarcely two months after the Omicron variant drove coronavirus case numbers to frightening heights in the United States, scientists and health officials are bracing for another swell in the pandemic and, with it, the first major test of the country’s strategy of living with the virus while limiting its impact.
At local, state and federal levels, the nation has been relaxing restrictions and trying to restore a semblance of normalcy. Encouraging Americans to return to prepandemic routines, officials are lifting mask and vaccine mandates and showing no inclination of closing down offices, restaurants or theaters.
But scientists are warning that the United States isn’t doing enough to prevent a new surge from endangering vulnerable Americans and potentially upending life again.
New pills can treat infections, but federal efforts to buy more of them are in limbo. An aid package in Congress is stalled, even as agencies run out of money for tests and therapeutics. Though less than one-third of the population has the booster shots needed for high levels of protection, the daily vaccination rate has fallen to a low.
While some Americans may never be persuaded to roll up their sleeves, experts said that health officials could be doing a lot more, for example, to get booster shots to the doorsteps of older people who have proved willing to take the initial doses.
“You use the quiet periods to do the hard work,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “You don’t use the quiet to forget.”
The clearest warnings that the brief period of quiet may soon be over have come, as they often have in the past two years, from Western Europe. In a number of countries, including Britain, France and Germany, case numbers are climbing as an even more contagious subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2, takes hold.
In interviews, 10 epidemiologists and infectious disease experts said that many of the ingredients were in place for the same to happen in the United States, though it was unclear if or when a wave might hit or how severe it might be.
Case numbers are still dropping nationally, but BA.2 accounts for a growing proportion of those infections, rising to almost one-quarter of new cases last week. The subvariant is estimated to be 30 to 50 percent more contagious than the previous version of Omicron, BA.1.
In New York City, average daily case numbers rose by roughly 40 percent over the past two weeks, though they remain extremely low compared with recent months. In Connecticut, scientists estimate that the frequency of BA.2 infections is doubling every seven or eight days — half the rate of Omicron’s growth this winter, but also considerably faster than the Delta variant’s 11-day doubling time before that.
“I expect we’ll see a wave in the U.S. sooner than what most people expect,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. He said that it could come as soon as April, or perhaps later in the spring or the early summer.
And given that some cases inevitably turn more serious, Dr. Andersen said, “yes, such a wave would be accompanied by rising hospitalizations and deaths.” (F)
““Probably his biggest challenge is that he doesn’t know government, he doesn’t have experience, and it does take a while to know who you should call, who you can’t and how you get through the hierarchy,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Mr. Biden’s top medical adviser for the pandemic, who will work closely with Dr. Jha. “But he’s a smart guy. He’ll figure it out.”
“Dr. Jha’s selection signals two things about Mr. Biden’s thinking. First, the president wants to keep the federal pandemic response centered in the White House, instead of delegating it to the Department of Health and Human Services or one of its agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Second, he wants to put it in the hands of a public health expert. Dr. Jha is replacing Jeffrey D. Zients, an entrepreneur and management consultant who presided over a huge mobilization of coronavirus vaccines, tests and therapeutics over the past 14 months.
“With the supply and logistics infrastructure now in place, Dr. Jha will face different challenges. Virus cases are rising in parts of Europe and Asia, and most experts, including Dr. Fauci, believe the numbers will rise again here. Yet many Americans do not want to think about the pandemic anymore. Mask mandates have lifted all over the country — even the federal Department of Health and Human Services is making masks optional — and many Americans will most likely resist putting them back on, even if conditions warrant it.
“How this plays out depends on how the dynamics of Covid play out, and frankly how much time elapses before he has to tell the American people we’re in trouble as well,” Dr. Nicole Lurie, who served as assistant health secretary for preparedness and response during the Obama administration, said of Dr. Jha. “And that could plausibly happen before he steps into this role, or on Day 1.”” (G)
- A.Here’s who will lead the White House COVID response for the next pandemic phase, by TAMARA KEITH, https://www.npr.org/2022/03/17/1087149187/dr-ashish-jha-is-the-new-white-house-covid-response-coordinator
- B.Dr. Jha talks BA.2 variant — and his new White House gig, By Marta Hill, https://www.boston.com/news/coronavirus/2022/03/18/ashish-jha-white-house-covid-response/
- C.New COVID-19 czar Dr. Ashish Jha brings visibility, scrutiny to role, By Cheyenne Haslett and Soo Rin Kim, https://abcnews.go.com/US/covid-19-czar-dr-ashish-jha-brings-visibility/story?id=83529850
- D.How Ashish Jha became network TV’s everyman expert on Covid, By Damian Garde, https://www.statnews.com/2021/05/18/how-ashish-jha-became-network-tvs-everyman-expert-on-covid/
- E.With a Flurry of High-Profile Coronavirus Cases, Washington Is Again on Edge, By Michael D. Shear, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/17/us/politics/washington-coronavirus-cases.html?referringSource=articleShare
- F.Another Covid Surge May Be Coming. Are We Ready for It?, By Benjamin Mueller, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/19/health/covid-ba2-surge-variant.html?referringSource=articleShare
- G. Can Ashish Jha, ‘A Comforting Voice,’ Tamp Down Covid’s Political Divide?, By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/20/us/politics/ashish-jha-covid-biden.html?referringSource=articleShare