White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients will be replaced by Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, President Joe Biden announced Thursday.
The change comes as the Biden administration shifts to a new Covid response strategy, unveiled earlier this month, focused on preparing for new variants and developing vaccines, tests and treatments while allowing the public to move back to “more normal routines.”
That strategy faces a high degree of uncertainty, though, given that the White House is struggling to secure billions of dollars in new funding it says are necessary. Zients warned in recent days that lawmakers’ failure to approve additional Covid funding would have “severe consequences.”
Jha, the incoming Covid response coordinator, has been a regular presence on television news coverage of the pandemic. He will assume his new role on April 5, according to a news release from Brown University.
“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 in a statement announcing the change. “And as we enter a new moment in the pandemic — executing on my National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and managing the ongoing risks from COVID — Dr. Jha is the perfect person for the job.”
Both Biden and Jha said Thursday that the nation has more work to do to address the pandemic.
“We must continue the effort to provide more vaccines and boosters,” Biden said. “We must get a vaccine approved for the youngest children. We must continue to improve how our schools and workplaces cope with COVID. We must take special care to protect the vulnerable from COVID, even as many restrictions are lifted. We need to provide tests, and treatments, and masks. We must fight the virus overseas, prepare for new waves, and new variants — all of which can be coming. And we must work with Congress to fund these vital steps, as time is running out to stay ahead of the virus.”
Zients, a wealthy management consultant and entrepreneur, earned a reputation as a “Mr. Fix It” in the Obama administration. He served as director of the National Economic Council and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Obama, and the president called on him to help address problems with the "Cash for Clunkers" car program and fix the Affordable Care Act marketplace website after its disastrous launch.
Biden tapped Zients to lead the nation’s coronavirus response efforts at a time when the logistical challenges of Covid vaccine and test distribution were of paramount importance.
“I called on Jeff Zients to lead my Administration’s COVID-19 response because there is no one better at delivering results than Jeff,” Biden said in his statement. “COVID-19 is the greatest public health crisis we’ve faced in my lifetime and it required the country to build from scratch an emergency response infrastructure that could quickly and equitably get people life-saving protections. Jeff put his decades of management experience to work formulating and executing on a plan to build the infrastructure we needed to deliver vaccines, tests, treatment, and masks to hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Yet while the vaccination program has gotten 217 million people, or nearly two-thirds of the country, “fully vaccinated” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition, it has also struggled to overcome resistance from millions of other Americans. Critics also faulted Zients and the administration for failing to ensure enough tests to meet demand that spiked around the holidays and for messaging that has at times been confusing.
Zients’s deputy, Natalie Quillian, will reportedly also be leaving next month.