- But his supporters argue that the public health expert’s wide-ranging expertise is more of an asset than his lack of government experience is a liability.
Since he was appointed White House COVID-19 response coordinator a few weeks ago, political pundits and public health experts have praised President Biden’s choice as an effective communicator. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, will replace Jeffrey D. Zients next week.
Biden said 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.” He said Jha “is the perfect person for the job to execute on the president’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and managing the ongoing risks from COVID, as we enter a new moment in the pandemic.”
But not everyone agrees with the President. According to Politico, “close Biden allies and medical advisers have expressed misgivings about Jha’s ability to exert influence as an outsider thrust into a tight-knit West Wing.” There is also confusion, Politico notes, “over what the departure of Jeffrey Zients as Covid coordinator and the elevation of Jha portends. Is it a new era in Biden’s war on Covid, or the beginning of the end for the White House’s crisis response?”
Martin Kulldorff, former professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School tweeted that Jha is a “surprising choice” as new Covid coordinator. “Not only was he wrong promoting lockdowns, school closures and vaccine passports, he mischaracterized and bullied other scientists by calling them “clowns.”
Similarly, Walid F. Gellad, a health policy professor at the University of Pittsburgh told Politico Nightly that Jha’s “elevation has raised questions among some of his fellow public health experts about how these pandemic pundits straddle the line between neutral expert and official government representative.” According to him, ‘these blurred lines may be contributing to the public sense that pandemic policymaking is just an extension of partisan politics.”
Gellad is among a group of health experts who have accused Jha of using his platform to share White House talking points, as reported by Politico Nightly.
While everybody talks of Jha’s calm wisdom about what we should be doing, Gellad told Nighty that he’s getting memos from the administration about what their plans are. “When you push certain points of view in the media and on TV, that’s obviously going to influence what the public feels. There are deep divisions in society about what the administration has done, and so it matters greatly what independent public experts say about it.”
“While it’s a normal practice for businesses and governments to look to social media influencers to guide their messaging, this becomes more dangerous,” Gellad said, “when public health is involved.”
Blaming it on “the politicization of public health,” Gellad said: And the problem with that is one of the major things you need in public health with a major epidemic is trust. Anything you do that reduces that trust is a big problem.”
People familiar with the matter told Politico that Jha is aware of the concerns, “and is planning to bring on a deputy with government experience who’s well versed in the byzantine structures of the federal government.”
But Jha also has a strong constituency of admirers. Several media commentators and medical experts hailed Jha’s appointment calling him the perfect person to steer the nation through the next phase of the pandemic.
The Washington Post noted that “Jha arrives at a natural inflection point, as the omicron wave subsides and the administration seeks to restore a sense of normalcy Jha’s appointment emphasized the recent shift in the nation’s pandemic strategy to a phase that’s more about preparedness and communication rather than maximizing operational effort.” However “Jha is set to inherit challenges that the White House is facing over its strategy and public communication,” The Post added.
According to ABC News, “Jha’s popularity is a selling point for the White House in the face of growing communications problems for the Biden administration under whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been criticized for being too slow and vague in its guidance issues.”
For the most part, 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. They believe that despite his inexperience in government, Jha’s communication skills will land him in good stead.
“A preternaturally calm 51-year-old”, Jha “is going to take charge of the most complicated federal response to a crisis in modern history,” wrote Sheryl Gay Stolberg in The New York Times. “While his communication skills will help,” she noted that “there is much more to the job than talking to the public. It requires coordination across government agencies and the private sector, from the Food and Drug Administration, which considers which drugs and vaccines to approve, and the State Department, which works to get vaccines overseas, to drugmakers and pharmacies.”
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser for the pandemic, told The New York Times that Jha’s “biggest challenge is that he doesn’t know government, he doesn’t have experience,” adding that “it does take a while to know who you should call, who you can’t and how you get through the hierarchy. Fauci, who will work closely with Jha, described him as “a smart guy,” who will “figure it out.”
Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb took to Twitter to laud Jha’s appointment. “As covid enters a phase where it becomes a persistent risk requiring a new public health footing, Dr. Ashish Jha has the broad clinical expertise, and deft touch in addressing public health needs, to galvanize shared action and shape that future,” he tweeted.
In the Stat, Lev Facher and Damian Garde wondered if the “pitch-perfect pandemic adviser: clear, affable, and panic-averse,” Jha can rise to the task of steering the sprawling federal pandemic response with so little experience in government, policy, or logistics. They spoke to several experts including Saad Omer and Saskia Popescu to find out.
Omer, an infectious disease physician who directs the Yale Institute for Global Health, told Stat that Jha is “a skilled communicator with subject-matter expertise, representing a refreshing reversal to the White House’s past arms-length approach to public health.” He said Zients was “an experienced but decidedly non-expert government coordinator who consulted with experts,” but with Jha, “the president has expertise on staff.”
Saskia Popescu, a biosecurity professor at George Mason University, in her interview with Stat, 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.”
Jha who officially takes charge of the Covid response on April 5, is a globally recognized expert on pandemic preparedness and response as well as on health policy research and practice. A now-familiar face in the cast of pandemic pundits on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, Jha has spent the past two years on our television screens and social media feeds, guiding us on how to navigate Covid, and leading national and international analysis of key issues and advising state and federal policymakers. He has participated in Congressional hearings on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, he advised the White House on the President’s national COVID-19 preparedness plan. Previously, Jha has led groundbreaking research around Ebola.
In addition to his role as dean and public health scholar, Jha is a practicing physician with expertise in infectious diseases. He was appointed to lead the School of Public Health in February 2020, weeks before COVID-19 arrived in full force in the U.S.
In a Twitter thread on March 17 after his appointment, Jha warned of complacency in combating the pandemic and laid out goals for the coming months. “Let’s keep our eye on the ball,” he wrote. “Prepare for surges and variants. … Work to ensure that schools, work, and other places of gathering remain safe. … Vaccinate the world”