The new White House Covid coordinator is great on TV. Is that what America’s pandemic response needs now?

WASHINGTON — When it comes to discussing the White House’s pandemic response on TV, there’s nobody as qualified as Ashish Jha.

Whether he’s on “Sesame Street” or Fox News, the Brown University public health school dean is a pitch-perfect pandemic adviser: clear, affable, and panic-averse. But the scope of his next job — steering the sprawling federal pandemic response — has some experts wondering whether someone with so little experience in government, policy, or logistics can rise to the task.

“Jha is a both a medical and public health expert who has been a voice of reason and clarity during the pandemic,” said Beth Linas, a research epidemiologist at RTI International, a nonprofit scientific organization. “The only thing I wonder is how another academic with limited government experience will help the nation. Government experience is a really important aspect of leading the massive federal bureaucracy.”

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Jha’s selection marks a distinct shift from the White House’s outgoing Covid-19 coordinator, Jeff Zients, a longtime government official and corporate executive who has no background or formal training in medicine or science.

By contrast, Jha has never worked in a government or private-sector leadership role. Since joining Harvard as an assistant public health professor in 2004, he has steadily climbed through the ranks of academia, though he ducked briefly into government work during a four-year stint as a medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was appointed dean of the Brown University School of Public Health in late 2020, soon after attaining his Covid-19 fame.

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Still, public health experts largely applauded his selection, arguing that Jha’s wide-ranging expertise is more an asset than his lack of government experience is a liability.

Saad Omer, an infectious disease physician who directs the Yale Institute for Global Health, said Jha, a skilled communicator with subject-matter expertise, represents a refreshing reversal to the White House’s past arms-length approach to public health. In Zients, Biden had an experienced but decidedly non-expert government coordinator who consulted with experts; with Jha, the president has expertise on staff.

“You wouldn’t put a generic government operative in charge of the Council of Economic Advisers,” Omer said. “Why would you think that health — which is equally if not more technically complex — would be open to a generalist kind of leadership?”

Already, Omer said, the Biden administration has committed unforced errors that a Covid coordinator with more scientific knowledge could have helped to avert. Had Jha been at the White House in December, Omer said, he might have advised Vice President Kamala Harris against remarking that the administration “didn’t see Delta coming.”

The job of Covid response coordinator, however, extends far beyond simply advising the president on scientific matters (a job already largely occupied by the likes of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, among others). Instead, the role entails coordinating between government agencies ranging from the Pentagon to the Postal Service, negotiating with drug companies on the purchase of new vaccines and treatments, and mailing out millions of rapid tests to Americans’ home addresses.

Saskia Popescu, a biosecurity professor at George Mason University, compared Jha’s appointment to that of Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As we’ve seen with the CDC director, she’s amazing, but it’s really challenging to navigate when you’re not used to facing some of the public scrutiny, the nuance of federal work, and rolling out policy,” she said. “But I think if anyone’s up to the challenge, it’s him.”

Luckily for Jha, however, one of his biggest likely hurdles is the one he’s already most adept at: communicating clearly and without committing gaffes — and coordinating messages effectively between different federal agencies.

“It can be a challenge for someone who’s never worked in federal government,” said Glen Nowak, a University of Georgia professor who spent six years as the CDC’s chief of media relations. “Being at an academic institute, you have a great deal of latitude when you speak to journalists, what you say to journalists. You don’t have to run messages up approval chains and across different organizations and agencies. … It will be very important that early on, he does get involved in learning the coordination and collaboration steps necessary to ensure that the messages are consistent, or at least unified.”

Writ large, experts argued, Jha’s lack of experience won’t pose an obstacle if he surrounds himself with experienced staff. Omer, for example, said Jha’s first task should be to recruit a “strong deputy” with a track record in Washington to compensate for his own lack of governmental experience.

Jha’s job will be easier, too, if the current trend of low Covid-19 case numbers and diminishing hospitalizations continues.

His task, however, will be delicate: to encourage Americans to largely return to their pre-Covid lives, while at the same time staying vigilant against the prospect of future spikes or new viral variants.

He’s joining the administration at a precarious moment, too. Biden’s top pandemic-response aides have spent the last week pleading publicly with Congress to provide funding for its continued pandemic-response efforts, like providing free tests and vaccinations, and covering the cost of treatment for those who fall ill. So far, lawmakers have let partisan fighting derail the White House’s requests.

And for Jha, at least in the short term, selling lawmakers on Covid’s continued relevance might be an even bigger job than selling the American public.

“Part of this new role is about making sure it resonates with people that Covid is not going away,” Popescu said. “While we can move away from a state of perpetual crisis response, we still have to be having these conversations. And I think that’s where he’s going to really excel.”

Helen Branswell contributed reporting.

Source: STAT