On the eve of the expiration date for the federally declared coronavirus public health emergency, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha warned that the pandemic is far from over.
“I don’t see this as an end to the pandemic or fighting Covid,” Jha said at a STAT event held at the Boston Public Library on Wednesday. “I see this as a transition out of this emergency phase into a very different phase.”
While emergency policies that allow hospitals to take measures like setting up beds in parking lots are no longer necessary, and the U.S. has come a long way in pandemic preparedness, Jha said that there is still more work to be done. “Are we better prepared? Yes,” he said. “Are we where we need to be? No.”
Jha was speaking as a member of the 2023 STATUS List, which recognized 46 leaders and newsmakers in health, medicine, science. The people who landed on the most recent annual list and were in attendance at the event ranged from Renee Wegrzyn, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a newly formed federal life sciences organization, to Jesse Ehrenfeld, president-elect of the American Medical Association, and Toyin Ajayi, co-founder and CEO of health tech startup Cityblock Health.
Asked about the most surprising challenges the U.S. has faced during the past three years of the pandemic, Jha cited the level of politicization surrounding the virus and vast amounts of medical misinformation. As one example, he noted that social media has prompted a disproportionate amount of attention on rebound cases of Covid among people who’d taken Paxlovid.
“I think there’s been a massive amount of bad information out there,” Jha told STAT senior writer Matthew Herper. “How do you rebuild trust in public health? How do you rebuild trust in vaccines?”
Another unfortunate surprise, Jha said, is “how hard it has been to galvanize the forces to do the things that we know we can do to really get Covid under control.”
That includes building better vaccine platforms and investing in bringing more rapid tests to market, Jha said.
Jha has been tight-lipped about his future after the White House finishes setting up the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy that Congress mandated in December. But he noted that throughout his career, he’s always had a wide range of interests.
“For three years, I have thought about nothing but one virus,” Jha said. Now he’s looking forward to thinking about the broader issues the pandemic has raised, including the decline in U.S. life expectancy and social determinants of health.
Many of the other STATUS List members at the event were similarly concerned with health inequities. Daniel Dawes, executive director of the newly established Global Health Equity Institute at Meharry Medical College, spoke about the need for the medical community to focus more on “political determinants of health,” adding that for various vulnerable populations, “voting can be the difference between life and death.”
Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, who serves as director of science at the CDC Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, lamented that despite a pandemic that killed over 1 million Americans, there is still no large-scale movement ensuring that this kind of disaster won’t happen again.
Steven Pearson, founder and president of the nonprofit Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, noted that it’s essential to keep issues of access in mind when deciding on drug pricing. At a recent international meeting in Boston, he said, a prominent investor in the medical community asked, “What’s the harm if we overvalue innovation and pay too much for it?” The harm, Pearson said, is that ultimately, people who need those drugs may not be able to afford rising health insurance and out-of-pocket costs. “If we pretend there aren’t real tradeoffs, the people who are hurt are the most vulnerable in society.”
Supporting health care workers was another major topic of concern for this year’s group of STATUS List members. Vanessa Grubbs, founder and president of Black Doc Village, noted that while there’s a lot of discussion about the importance of bringing more Black people into the pipeline to become doctors, “not enough people are talking about the fact that medicine is pushing young Black people out.” While about 5% of medical residents in the country are Black, they account for 20% of dismissals, Grubbs said.
Ehrenfeld of the AMA also said that there needs to be more discussion about the real dangers of a health care workforce shortage. “I think everyone recognizes the burnout that we all feel,” he said. But unless changes are made, “we are about to run into, at 90 miles per hour, a workforce wall … that has huge implications for access and health equity.”
This story has been updated.