Top Biden Covid official Jha set to depart June 15

Ashish Jha is stepping down from his role as White House Covid-19 response coordinator on June 15 to return to his job as dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, the White House confirmed Thursday.

The long-planned departure comes weeks after HHS allowed the Covid-19 public health emergency to lapse on May 11. The number of Covid hospitalizations in the past week totaled 7,643, the lowest total since early in the pandemic.

Jha — widely touted as an effective health communicator during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic — was brought on in April 2022 to replace Jeffrey Zients, who was later tapped as President Joe Biden’s chief of staff. His last day in the administration will be June 15, the White House confirmed.

“He has effectively translated and communicated complex scientific challenges into concrete actions that helped save and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Biden said in a statement. “We are a stronger and healthier nation because of his contributions to public service.”

Jha’s departure comes as the White House still seeks a permanent director to run its newly established pandemic preparedness office, leaving Biden without a Covid response chief in the West Wing for the first time in his administration.

Senior White House aides pitched candidates, including FDA Chief Medical Officer Hilary Marston and Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Director Tom Inglesby, on the job. Both turned it down, according to three Democrats granted anonymity to discuss the search process.

The rejections spoiled plans to appoint a pandemic preparedness director before Jha left, allowing the White House to orchestrate a handoff aimed at reassuring the public that the administration is keeping a close eye on Covid.

Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist and editor-at-large for public health at KFF Health News, said that with the U.S. out of the pandemic crisis phase, it is a natural transition point for Jha to depart.

“We’re at a place where those roles are really thankless jobs where there’s no funding, no power, no authority to get things done,” said Gounder, who served on Biden’s Covid-19 transition team. “So I think it’s creating a lot of challenges in terms of recruiting people to serve in those roles because they’re, you’re kind of set up to fail.”

Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiology professor at Brown University School of Public Health, said that while the acute Covid-19 crisis is over, the thankless work of protecting people from the virus and future threats is a difficult task for the Biden administration.

“Responding to these events with temporary infrastructure and funding is not ideal,” Nuzzo said. “What we should be building is a stronger system that can snap into place when emergencies happen rather than trying to scramble to put resources and people in place.”

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