President Joe Biden announced Thursday that Jeff Zients would step aside as COVID-19 response coordinator and be replaced by Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.
Jha has maintained a prominent presence on social media and network TV throughout the pandemic.
“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. 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,” Biden said Thursday.
Zients had served as the pandemic response coordinator for 14 months. Under his watch, vaccination rates climbed beyond 75% of all adults fully vaccinated to date, but the administration also failed to procure sufficient tests and therapeutics for the omicron surge.
Zients has been credited with fixing, in 2013, the glitch-riddled Obamacare site where people could purchase healthcare coverage. Before being tapped to overhaul healthcare.gov, Zients served as an economic adviser to President Barack Obama.
Zients and members of the pandemic committee were caught off-guard when the omicron wave hit late last year. Tests, which were in lower demand through much of early 2021, were exceedingly hard to find last fall and winter. Images of frustrated and cold people waiting for hours in lines winding around city blocks to get a quick PCR test became ubiquitous. Meanwhile, COVID-19 antivirals such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid treatment, which were thought to be a game-changer for those at high risk of severe illness, remain scarce.
The staffing change comes on the heels of the administration hitting resistance from congressional lawmakers, mostly Republicans, over its request for more pandemic funding. The administration has implored members of the House and Senate to pass a stand-alone funding bill after $15.6 billion directed toward purchases of tests, therapeutics, and vaccines were yanked from the government spending bill earlier this month.
The administration has warned that coffers are running dry and supplies of lifesaving treatments such as monoclonal antibodies are shrinking. Funding for research and development of variant-specific vaccines and more treatments is also drying up, senior administration officials told reporters.