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Dr. Ashish Jha, new White House coronavirus czar, talks future of virus

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Dr. Ashish Jha is wrapping up his first Monday as the new White House coronavirus czar. Jha takes the reins from Jeffrey Zients, who steered the administration's response to the virus for more than a year. And it's quite a moment to be stepping into the role. Congress has yet to approve funding that would cover the cost of testing, vaccines and lifesaving treatments, and there's concern the delay could hamper access to all three. And some areas of the country are seeing trend lines heading back up. Dr. Ashish Jha joins me now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ASHISH JHA: Thank you for having me back.

ESTRIN: So I want to ask you a little bit about where the country is and a little bit about how you're approaching this role. So first, let's start with where the country is. The number of new infections is ticking up. Even at the White House, you've seen a number of positive cases. And I want to ask you about something White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: We believe we have the tools and protocol to address this point we are in the virus. But like anyone else, the president may, at some point, test positive for COVID.

ESTRIN: So is that the administration's strategy right now - you just may get COVID? Is that what we should be telling our parents and grandparents - you just may get it?

JHA: Well, so first and foremost, I mean, if you think about where we are as a country, we are at a really good moment. Infection numbers are relatively low. We have fewer people in the hospital right now than at any point in the pandemic. So it is really important to start with, where are we? We're in reasonably good shape. We are getting people vaccinated and boosted. Again, obviously, I wish more people were getting vaccinated and boosted.

And so we do have to understand that we're in a very different moment than where we were a couple of years ago, where a COVID infection necessarily meant people were at potentially very high risk of having bad outcomes. That is no longer the case if you are vaccinated and boosted. I think that's the reality that we are seeing reflected at the White House. That's the reality you're seeing everywhere. Obviously, we want to keep infections down, but eliminating all infections is not the goal. The goal has got to be keep infections down and protect people from serious illness.

ESTRIN: Well, as we mentioned, cases are ticking up and many being driven by the BA.2 variant. They're still lower than the height of the omicron, but Philadelphia just announced this afternoon that it plans to reinstitute a mask mandate next week because cases are going up there. Do you envision a scenario where some pandemic restrictions will need to be reintroduced in other places?

JHA: Yeah, so first and foremost, these are decisions that should always be made on a local level, so I like that feature of what Philadelphia is doing. And they should be driven, really, by the realities on the ground. And, you know, CDC has laid out pretty clear guidance of communities and community spread and recommendations. I can very much imagine in the weeks and months ahead, as you see local cases go up, public health measures get put into place. And as, you know, infections and hospitalizations fall, public health measures get released. That's a pretty reasonable way to manage a pandemic. And I think that's great. I'm happy to see that being done in places across the country.

ESTRIN: Now, you know, a large part of the country is distrustful of anything the administration has to say, quite frankly, about COVID. You know, and if you're talking about perhaps reintroducing restrictions in some places, what are you going to do perhaps differently than your predecessors to combat this mistrust and persuade people to follow the guidance you have?

JHA: Yeah. So part of it begins by doing these things at a local level. I mean, people may have whatever feelings they have about, you know, federal or state governments, but people generally tend to have a very strong relationship with their local government. And I think local policies should be driven by local facts on the ground. And I think it's our job, and certainly the job of the CDC, to lay out the scientific basis for those decisions. And then I feel like it's the job of the rest of us to kind of communicate clearly and effectively what the purpose is, what we're trying to do in terms of protecting people. And I think that helps break through the distrust that some people feel. Open and kind of straightforward talk about the moment we're in in the pandemic and what we need to do to protect people is really critical here.

ESTRIN: Well, how will you clearly explain your strategy, the administration's strategy? You say the country has the tools to deal with the pandemic at this point. How will you communicate that to the public clearly?

JHA: Yeah, so I think what I have found in communicating with the public over the last couple of years is that people understand that we have a - you know, we have a virus that obviously is highly, highly contagious, can cause severe illness, especially in people who are unvaccinated and haven't been fully vaccinated. And the job at this moment is to help people understand that while we are in a good place, the pandemic isn't over. We are likely to see surges in the future. We may get another variant. We don't know.

And what we need to be doing right now is preparing for those moments by vaccinating people, by making sure that we have plenty of tests and therapies available. That's got to be the strategy - not so much predicting exactly what's going to happen when but preparing for any eventuality that Mother Nature throws at us. I think if we can communicate that effectively to the American people, I think maybe people are going to both understand it and really be supportive of it.

ESTRIN: That is Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the White House COVID czar, the new czar. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

JHA: Thank you for having me back.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIATUS KAIYOTE'S "LEAP FROG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.