Dr. Ashish Jha named new COVID lead as White House takes new pandemic approach President Biden recently announced a new COVID plan to try to get things back to normal. Dr. Ashish Jha — a familiar face in the public health community — helped develop that plan.

Here's who will lead the White House COVID response for the next pandemic phase

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The Biden administration is in a new phase of its approach to the COVID pandemic, and now there will be a new person leading the response. President Biden announced today that Dr. Ashish Jha will be taking over next month as the White House COVID response coordinator. He replaces Jeff Zients, who's been there since the start of the administration. And to talk more about what all of this means, we're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hey, Tam.


CHANG: So what do you think? What does this change in leadership signal?

KEITH: Jha will take the helm of the COVID response at a time when the country is figuring out how to live with this disease. The White House focus has shifted from preventing every infection to focusing on testing and quick treatment for the most vulnerable. But there's huge uncertainty in what comes next. Jeff Zients, who he is replacing, came to this role with government experience and consulting experience. And he used that to ramp up the vaccination campaign, for instance. Jha's background is quite different, as a physician with an emphasis in public health. He is currently dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. And he's also really well-known for his communication skills. President Biden, in his announcement, said that he is, quote, a "well-known figure to many Americans from his wise and calming presence." And the sense is that the White House wants him to bring that to this role. And just as an example of how he is as a communicator, last month I interviewed him about mask use, and he pulled out an analogy, likening a mask to a raincoat.

ASHISH JHA: You wear it when it's raining. You take it off when it stops raining. 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.

CHANG: That is an apt analogy. So what has been the reaction so far to this appointment of Jha?

KEITH: Well, I called up Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine. He knows Jha and said he has a lot of good attributes for the role. Here he is sort of echoing President Biden.

PETER HOTEZ: We've seen him for the last two years on the cable news networks. He's a terrific communicator. He's a calming presence. So all of those are important assets for organizing the nation's COVID-19 response.

KEITH: But he also said one challenge might be his lack of experience in a government role at all. How much will he have to be in the weeds about things like supply chain management, for instance, or how much of that can he assign to others? I also spoke with Saad Omer of the Yale Institute for Global Health. He's less concerned about that as long as Jha has the right people working with him. Omer said Jha is coming in, though, at a challenging moment, when there is a lot more work to do.

SAAD OMER: I hope that his focus is not just on what is happening now and next week but also setting us up well for the next season, for example.

KEITH: The next variant, the next pandemic even. And he's quite encouraged...

CHANG: Right.

KEITH: ...By the White House naming someone who does have that strong public health background.

CHANG: Well, Tam, I mean, this change in leadership, it is coming at another inflection point during this pandemic. As you say, this is after the White House just releasing its roadmap for the next phase of the pandemic. And it's also coming just as a new surge is hitting, like, in places such as southeast Asia and much of Europe. How do you think all of that factors into this leadership change?

KEITH: Well, and it's also coming as the White House says it's running out of money to pay for really important parts of dealing with the pandemic. They've asked Congress for $22.5 billion, and it's not clear that money will come through. The Health and Human Services Secretary and Dr. Fauci were up on the Hill today, lobbying for that money. Omer told me that public health officials like Jha are pretty familiar with the boom-and-bust cycle of public health funding, but he didn't expect it would come in the middle of a pandemic. So Jha is coming in with that as a challenge and also with a public that is just frankly exhausted. So the risk of complacency is real.

CHANG: Indeed. That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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