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Dr. Ashish Jha, will be the new face of the White House's COVID-19 response


There's a big change coming to the White House team dealing with COVID. Jeff Zients, who has been the COVID response coordinator since the start of the Biden administration, is leaving. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, will be the new face of the COVID response. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith follows all of this very closely. Tamara, Dr. Jha's name, his face, his voice - probably very familiar to listeners. He's been on our air pretty much a lot of times in the last few years.


MARTÍNEZ: What can you tell us about him?

KEITH: Yeah, so he's been a ubiquitous presence on cable TV and, yes, on our air, too, throughout the pandemic. And for a while now, 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. I spoke to him last month for a story I was working on about the White House road map for the next phase of the pandemic, and he was one of many outside experts advising the Biden administration, and this is what he told me.


ASHISH JHA: No one thinks that the virus is going away. 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?

KEITH: He is a clear communicator with a ready analogy, like with masks - he says to think of them like a raincoat. You use a raincoat when it's raining. You put it away when it isn't. So when there's a surge, he says people will need to wear high-quality masks. But when cases are low, as they are now, masks aren't necessary. And while he has been advising the White House, he has also been critical at times, for instance, of how the administration has communicated with the public about shifting guidance. In a statement announcing the move, President Biden described Jha as a wise and calming public presence, and we can expect to see a lot of him.

MARTÍNEZ: Back to Jeff Zients for a second.

KEITH: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: Why is he getting out now? And what did he do in 14 months?

KEITH: He is the guy who was brought in several years ago to fix healthcare.gov in the Obama administration. And with the pandemic response, he approached it like the management consultant he is. Zients and his team scaled up vaccinations, making them widely available early in the administration. And more recently, after being caught a bit flat-footed by the omicron surge, they've gotten production of at-home rapid tests and anti-viral pills really moving along. A White House official tells me Zients had been trying to leave the job for a while now, but COVID kept throwing curveballs.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the White House recently issued a road map for the next phase of the pandemic. What does that mean for Jha?

KEITH: It's essentially a road map for an uncertain future, and now Jha will be the one guiding the country through that uncertainty. That could mean another booster dose. It will almost certainly mean vaccinating children under 5. And as Jha told me last month, there will inevitably be another variant. In fact, there's one circulating in Europe right now.


KEITH: One big challenge he may well face also is a lack of resources. The White House has asked Congress for $22.5 billion in emergency funds for COVID prevention and treatment. It's not clear that money is going to come through. And the administration is going to have to start scaling back programs next week.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing really quick. The president's schedule, I heard, upended by COVID - what happened?

KEITH: Yeah, the prime minister of Ireland was at an event last night with President Biden and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, when he found out he had tested positive for COVID. There was supposed to be a meeting at the White House today. Now it's going to be virtual. This is just the latest bit of evidence that COVID is most certainly not over. The second gentleman, Vice President Harris' husband, also tested positive earlier this week. Everyone is experiencing mild symptoms, and they're all vaccinated.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks a lot.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.