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Biden’s Covid Czar Will Be Replaced by Ashish Jha

The choice of Dr. Jha, an outspoken public health expert, is a sign that the White House believes the country is entering a new phase of the pandemic.

WASHINGTON — Jeffrey D. Zients, an entrepreneur and management consultant who steered President Biden’s coronavirus response through successive pandemic waves and the largest vaccination campaign in American history, plans to leave the White House in April to return to private life, President Biden said in a statement.

Mr. Zients will be replaced as the White House coronavirus coordinator by Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a practicing internist who has urged an aggressive approach to the pandemic in frequent television appearances. Dr. Jha will coordinate the government’s Covid-19 response from inside the White House, officials said.

Mr. Biden called Mr. Zients “a man of service” and praised his work to “build the infrastructure we needed to deliver vaccines, tests, treatment and masks to hundreds of millions of Americans.”

For the past 14 months, Mr. Zients has presided over a tumultuous and challenging stretch of the pandemic. Two highly infectious coronavirus variants, Delta and Omicron, caught the White House off guard. The public was often confused by conflicting messages. And the vaccination campaign, while largely hailed as a success, ran into far more resistance than the president anticipated when he took office. As Mr. Zients prepares to depart, the nation’s death toll from the pandemic is about to surpass one million.

Now, with three-quarters of Americans having had at least one dose of vaccine, officials said the federal response would become more of a long-term public health effort and less of a moment-by-moment crisis requiring rapid government action. If new variants of the virus spread, they said, Dr. Jha will be able to draw upon the tools his predecessor put in place during the past 14 months.

Officials said his background as a medical doctor makes him the right choice as the virus becomes more an endemic part of the country’s health challenges. In 2014, Dr. Jha was a co-chair of an international commission on the global response to the Ebola outbreak. And he has argued that agencies like the World Health Organization are critical in dealing with diseases like Ebola and Zika.

Public health experts praised the selection. Dr. Rick Bright, chief executive officer of the Pandemic Prevention Institute, a project of the Rockefeller Foundation, said Dr. Jha’s skills as a communicator would “enable us to transition smoothly.”

In his statement thanking the president, Dr. Jha addressed the public directly. “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,” he said.

Mr. Zients, 55, became one of the unlikely faces of the Biden administration’s response to the deadly virus, a somber-sounding businessman presiding over weekly updates with public health officials that were streamed live on the White House website. He had committed to working in the West Wing for a limited time as Mr. Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, and extended his stay several times at the president’s request, officials said.

Mr. Zients’s deputy, Natalie Quillian, will also depart in April.

Mr. Zients’s decision comes as the United States is easing out of pandemic crisis mode for now, but is still not out of danger. While cases are on a downward trajectory in much of the country, they are rising in parts of Europe and Asia. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser for the pandemic, said in an interview on Wednesday that they are likely to eventually rise here as well.

Addressing them will now be Dr. Jha’s responsibility.

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Jeffrey Zients’s decision comes as the United States is easing out of pandemic crisis mode for now, but is still not out of danger.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

At the weekly briefings, Mr. Zients was joined by Dr. Fauci; Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and sometimes Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the surgeon general.

But behind the scenes, he is a logistics man who manages a vast operation that has cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. He has spent much of his time in sometimes intense meetings with drug and insurance company executives, governors, and state and local health officials.

Recently, he helped orchestrate the delivery of nearly 400 million N95 masks to Americans, free of charge. And officials said his discussions with Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, helped shave months off the development of the company’s antiviral pill; the government has committed to buying 20 million doses.

When transportation became a barrier to vaccination, Mr. Zients persuaded the chief executives of Uber and Lyft to offer free rides, said Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, who advised the White House on racial equity issues. When lack of child care and vacation leave became obstacles, he persuaded day care centers to offer free care and companies to offer free time off.

“I could call him any time of the day or night and say, ‘This is a problem, we’ve got to solve for this,'” she said. “Jeff’s job all day was solving for this.”

Critics have said Mr. Zients, who made a fortune building two consultancies and taking them public, was an odd pick to run the pandemic response given his lack of experience in public health. But his past work touched on health care, both as the chief executive of the Advisory Board Company, a health care consultancy, and in the Obama administration, where he ran the effort to fix the healthcare.gov website.

During the surge of cases — and deaths — this winter, some blamed Mr. Zients for failing to do enough to prevent them, particularly when the highly transmissible Omicron variant caught the administration unprepared. Some supporters of Mr. Biden — particularly those on the Democratic left — were openly disdainful of both Mr. Zients and Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff.

“We wanted this to be run as a scientific operation; it’s being run as a management consultancy,” Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale University who has often been critical of the administration, said in an interview in January. “Ron Klain and Jeff Zients are the wrong people to be where the buck stops on this.”

In January, The American Prospect, a liberal website, published an article titled “Fire Jeff Zients” that said he had “proven himself not up to the task, and Biden should relieve him of his duties.”

Mr. Zients was not always able to see around corners. In June, he declared that the nation was “entering a summer of joy, a summer of freedom,” not long after the Delta variant hammered India, and as it hit Britain. When it took hold in the United States over the summer, cases and deaths skyrocketed.

Critics pointed to the White House’s failure to ensure enough supply to meet the huge demand for mass rapid testing in the weeks before and after Christmas, a logistics problem that lingered well into January, as the Omicron surge began receding.

Dr. Fauci, though, defended Mr. Zients, saying his predictions last summer were based on the assumptions — incorrect, as it turned out — that 70 percent of the adult population would be vaccinated by July 4, and that the coronavirus could not spread among vaccinated people.

Inside the White House, Mr. Zients’ impending departure set off wistful feelings. Mr. Klain called Mr. Zients a “once-in-a-generation managerial talent” and a “warmhearted friend,” and credited him with getting the country access to tests and vaccines.

Dr. Fauci said he was “very saddened by it.” He said Mr. Zients was always calm in a crisis, likening him to a hockey player who “always looked at where the puck is going to be, as opposed to where the puck is.”

At the moment, Mr. Zients is trying to persuade Congress to appropriate $22.5 billion in coronavirus relief funds that the administration says it desperately needs to purchase more tests, drugs and vaccines.

In an interview on Tuesday, he expressed confidence that lawmakers would approve the funds without strings attached, despite demands from Republicans for the White House to come up with a plan to pay for the aid package by diverting existing money from other programs.

Congress was poised to pass a scaled-back, $15.6 billion version of the package last week, but it fell apart after governors, and House Democrats, objected to paying for it in part by taking $7 billion in federal money that had been allocated to the states. The White House said on Tuesday that it had already scaled back plans to buy monoclonal antibody treatments because the government was out of cash.

“We’ve got to get it done,” Mr. Zients said. “Because there are major consequences to not getting it done.”

The decision to replace Mr. Zients with Dr. Jha reflects Mr. Biden’s desire to keep management of the pandemic close at hand.

Previous public health crises have been managed by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the C.D.C. and the Food and Drug Administration. But that has not been the case during the coronavirus pandemic, either under Mr. Biden or his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump.

Both presidents chose to anchor their response to the virus in the West Wing. Biden administration officials say that because the fight against Covid-19 requires a “whole of government” response, involving multiple agencies, it makes sense to keep it centered in the White House.

A native of India who immigrated first to Canada and then to the United States, Dr. Jha is a general internist who has practiced in Massachusetts and Providence, R.I. Before taking the position at Brown in the fall of 2020, he directed a global health institute at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.

He has been a strong advocate for expanding global access to Covid-19 vaccines, and pushed the nascent Biden administration to take an aggressive stance in a February 2021 article in Foreign Affairs.

“What that led to is a call with a couple of people on the Biden team who asked, ‘Do you think we’re not being aggressive enough?'” he said in an interview at the time. He told them that while the administration’s efforts looked “heroic” compared with those of Mr. Trump, they were indeed inadequate for the crisis at hand.

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