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

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, seen here in a December 2020 file photo. Jha is the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator.
Elise Amendola
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, seen here in a December 2020 file photo. Jha is the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator.

Updated March 17, 2022 at 11:50 AM ET

As the Biden administration pushes into the next phase of the COVID pandemic, there will be a new face for the government's response. And it's a familiar one. In a statement, President Biden announced Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, will serve as the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator.

"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, nodding to Jha's ubiquitous presence on cable news (and the public radio airwaves) throughout the pandemic.

Jha replaces Jeff Zients, a former economic adviser to President Barack Obama, who brought private sector management experience to the massive challenge of ramping up a nationwide vaccination campaign at the start of a new administration. Zients and his deputy, Natalie Quillian, are both set to leave in April, the White House said.

Jha is an expert in disease research and public health policy

Jha is one of many outside advisers the White House consulted as it developed its roadmap for the next phase of the pandemic. He has been a proponent of using all available tools to help people return to the important things in life, like school and social interactions.

"No one thinks that the virus is going away," Jha told NPR in an interview last month. "None of us think that we'll never have another surge or another variant. So what's the game plan so that we're not caught off guard?"

And while he has been advising the White House, Jha has also been critical at times, for instance of how the administration has communicated with the public about shifting guidance. He thought it was a mistake last summer for the president to celebrate masks coming off in a way that made it seem like the pandemic was over and they would never need to come back. Of course, the delta wave soon followed.

Jha is a clear communicator, with a ready analogy. Like with masks, he says to think of them like a rain coat.

"You wear it when it's raining. You take it off when it stops raining," Jha told NPR.

"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," he added.

In a statement released by Brown University, Jha said he was honored by the president's invitation to join the administration. "To the American people, I promise I will be straightforward and clear in sharing what we know, in explaining what we don't know and how we will learn more, and what the future will ask of all of us," Jha said.

Being upfront about uncertainty is one of the best practices of public health communications.

Zients was COVID czar for 14 months

A White House official told NPR that Zients, who left a private equity firm to join the administration, had been trying to move on for some time, but COVID kept throwing curveballs.

"Jeff Zients has made contributions the country will never fully appreciate," Andy Slavitt, a member of the COVID response team who left last year, wrote on Twitter. "When we arrived Jan 20, there were no vaccines, no at home tests, no distribution sites. No global commitment, no website & months since the last public briefing."

In fact, there were vaccines, but not nearly enough of them and the distribution channels were imperfect at best. One of the early accomplishments of Zients and his team was to set up a pharmacy program, distributing doses directly to pharmacies to get shots in arms more quickly.

Much later, after being caught flatfooted by the omicron variant, the White House COVID response team aggressively moved to purchase and distribute at-home rapid COVID tests. Americans can now get eight tests shipped to their homes free of charge, via Zients also pushed to accelerate the production schedule of antiviral pills to treat COVID in high risk patients.

Biden's pandemic policy turns a corner

The leadership shift comes as the administration moves into a new phase of its pandemic response, one that seeks to get more things back to normal after two years of crisis while staying vigilant for new variants and outbreaks.

That plan hit a road bump when the White House asked Congress for $22.5 billion in emergency spending to pay for it. Congress has thus far declined.

The White House said it will start to wind down a COVID-19 program that pays to test, treat and vaccinate people who don't have health insurance and had to step back from plans to place another order for monoclonal antibody treatments.

High-profile cases pop up around Biden

According to a statement from the Irish embassy in Washington, the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin tested positive for COVID Wednesday evening. His planned meeting with Biden at the White House was shifted to virtual.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Vice President Harris announcedthat second gentleman Douglas Emhoff had also tested positive. Harris had tested negative as of Tuesday's announcement.

These are just the latest reminders that COVID is most certainly not over.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.