Ashish Jha, the new White House coronavirus response coordinator, took the job about a month ago. His first press briefing came amid a rise in cases and made clear that he’ll have to lead a fight against two enemies: the virus and policymakers’ complacency about it.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Jha, the former dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and a prominent Covid-19 commentator before joining the Biden administration, was flanked by CDC director Rochelle Walensky and infectious disease czar Anthony Fauci. They made two main points.
First: The coronavirus is on the rise. Cases are up 57 percent across the US in the last two weeks, according to the New York Times’s tracker. Walensky noted at the briefing that one-third of Americans live in an area currently experiencing high or medium levels of transmission. Hospitalizations and deaths aren’t yet growing at the same rate, which likely reflects vaccinations and the availability of antivirals, but any increase in Covid-19’s spread puts people more at risk.
The major related message I got from Jha and his colleagues: Unless the American public more broadly — and Congress in particular — continues to take Covid-19 seriously, the US will endure a lot of unnecessary sickness and death over the rest of the year.
“People are tired. People want to move on. The good news is we’re in a way better place than where we were two years ago, largely because of the capabilities that science has delivered for us,” Jha said. “Vaccines, boosters, therapeutics, testing, masks — all of that makes an enormous difference. And we’ve got to keep using that as the virus evolves and as the virus continues to do what it’s doing.”
The coronavirus isn’t getting complacent. The latest iterations of the omicron variant are more contagious than anything that came before. But at the same time, America is letting its guard down. People are getting back to their lives, while Congress dithers on another round of support for the country’s pandemic response.
One-third of Americans still haven’t gotten two doses of the Covid-19 vaccines. Booster rates are lagging, with only 63 percent of people over 64 — those most likely to benefit — having received an additional dose. Kids under 5 still can’t get a shot. With the virus getting better at evading prior immunity, there are widespread vulnerabilities that require a national response.
But what if the country struggles to mount one? Therein lies the danger, Jha explained.
The White House is begging Congress to act on Covid-19 funding
The White House is still urging people to be vigilant. Walensky encouraged people in communities with high transmission — you can check the CDC’s county-by-county tracker — to wear masks indoors. Even in places where transmission levels are lower, she pointed out, people can still consider avoiding large indoor gatherings or wearing a mask if they want to avoid infection.
But there was a tacit acknowledgment that individuals taking their own precautions can only do so much given the broader changes in behavior. The country needs to vaccinate and boost as many people as possible and make treatments and tests easily available to minimize the amount of serious illness and death.
But complacency in Congress is putting those efforts at risk.
The White House has been asking Congress for billions of dollars for the next phase of the pandemic response since early March. It looked as though the money would be quickly approved, but it was pulled from a government spending bill at the last minute. Lawmakers have been trying to finalize a deal ever since.
At one point, Congress cut about $5 billion in global response funding, money that would have supported vaccination efforts in other parts of the world, where rates are lagging. Jha, perhaps not by coincidence, warned on Wednesday against shortsightedness in supporting the rest of the world’s fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no ‘domestic-only’ strategy to a global pandemic,” Jha said. “We’ve now got to continue that work by making sure that we’re getting vaccines into people’s arms.”
But Congress’s inaction also jeopardizes the pandemic response in the United States. A next generation of Covid-19 vaccines is expected to come to the market soon, but without more funding from Congress, the White House won’t be able to guarantee a shot for every person who wants one. They may have to ration the next-gen vaccine doses that they can afford, limiting access to the most vulnerable individuals, a possibility that Politico referred to as “unthinkable” a year ago.
The federal government is also depending on more funding in order to increase the supply of antiviral medications that can make infections less severe. Jha noted in the briefing that prescriptions for Paxlovid had increased fourfold in the last month, outpacing the increase in cases, a sign that the US was finally doing a better job getting that treatment to people.
But that progress may be short-lived if Congress doesn’t act.
“At some point, we’re going to run out of the treatments we have,” Jha said. “And without additional resources, we will find ourselves in the fall or winter with people getting infected and no treatments available for them because we will have run out.”
Tests, too, could run low as diagnostic companies disband their manufacturing lines without the guarantee of a meaningful market that would come with an infusion of federal funding.
“All of this is incredibly preventable,” Jha pleaded. “We should be doing everything we can to make sure that that scenario does not come to be.”
The Biden administration has played a significant role in pushing the country out of an emergency footing. It has loosened masking and isolation guidance, sometimes earlier than some experts thought was appropriate. It has adopted a message that Americans are going to have to learn to live with the virus.
But that transition to a new normal was always contingent on the easy availability of vaccines, tests, and treatments, something the White House is still fighting to secure.
The stakes, two years into the pandemic, should be clear. Fewer vaccines, fewer treatments, and fewer tests will mean more infections, more serious illnesses, and more deaths. That is the scenario the country is staring down: one million people already dead and more to come because politicians became complacent.
“I think it’d be terrible,” Jha said. “I think we would see a lot of unnecessary loss of life if that were to happen.”
The question now is whether his warnings will be heeded — or whether they will fall on the deaf ears of a country, and a Congress, that has been moving on.