New Coronavirus Czar: $10 Billion Is Just a ‘Down Payment’ for Pandemic Funding
Health Care

New Coronavirus Czar: $10 Billion Is Just a ‘Down Payment’ for Pandemic Funding

Dr. Ashish Jha took over Monday as the White House coronavirus response coordinator, replacing Jeff Zients. Jha, appointed by President Biden last month, started his tenure by making the rounds of morning television news shows, saying he’s “not overly concerned” about the BA.2 omicron subvariant and the increase in cases some regions are now seeing. Jha said that infection rates are still low relative to where they have been and hospitalizations — “the metric we care about most” — are at their lowest level since the start of the pandemic.

“The pandemic isn’t over. We’re still going to see cases of this virus spreading, and we have to continue to be vigilant, we have to continue to be careful,” Jha said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He added that the vaccines and boosters are working well against the BA.2 subvariant and said it is “absolutely essential” that every adult who is more than five months from vaccination get their booster shot, and especially important for older Americans. “That’s how we’re going to save lives, that’s how we’re going to prevent hospitalizations and deaths — is making sure that older, more vulnerable people absolutely get their booster,” he said.

A down payment on pandemic funding needs? Jha told CBS that he’s confident Congress will “step up and do its part” by delivering additional pandemic funding — money that the White House has said is urgently needed to continue providing vaccines, treatments and testing. Congress has so far failed to approve that funding, as a bipartisan bill to provide $10 billion got delayed in the Senate last week after Republicans demanded a vote on an amendment to extend a pandemic-era border policy that the Biden administration has said it will end next month.

Jha called the $10 billion a down payment on needed funding, noting that the administration had previously asked for $22.5 billion or more. “We need it for vaccines, we need to make sure that we have plenty of testing available, we need to make sure that we have plenty of treatments available,” Jha said. “That’s all going to be essential, and we’re going to need the resources to make sure that we have that for the American people.”

Jha also said that the Biden administration may extend the federal mask mandate for public transportation, which is currently set to expire on April 18. “This is a CDC decision and I think it is absolutely on the table,” he told NBC’s “Today Show.”

Why it matters: Jha’s appointment to the White House job was questioned by some skeptics who pointed out that he has never had a leadership role in government and doesn’t have experience managing the federal bureaucracy or handling the politics and public scrutiny that inevitably come with such a job. While serving as the White House Covid czar, he’s on leave from his position as dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

“Now, the amiable academic faces a real-world test of his pithy TV advice: If the government fails to secure enough vaccines and tests, forcing Americans into long waits, it’s his problem. If a new variant causes a sixth pandemic wave, or besieged hospitals cannot handle an avalanche of cases, those are his problems, too, and ones that can’t be explained away in a cable-news segment,” The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond wrote in a profile published this weekend.

Jha’s defenders say he’s the right person for the job because he brings health and policy expertise along with messaging skills. “Three administration officials working on the coronavirus response agreed Jha’s background as a public health expert and physician would allow him to foresee some challenges his predecessor missed,” Diamond reported.

The bottom line: The real test for Jha won’t be on morning news shows.