WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients and his deputy Natalie Quillian are leaving the administration next month, the White House announced Thursday. They will be replaced by Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
Zients, an experienced manager and government executive, was brought on by Biden before he took office to devise and execute a "wartime” federal government response to the coronavirus pandemic, including shoring up supply and distribution of vaccines, therapeutics and tests. His departure comes as the White House is shifting its posture from one of confronting an emergency to nudging Americans back to normalcy as the nation learns to live with a less-severe virus that is likely to remain endemic.
The latest national COVID-19 strategy, released by Zients and his team earlier this month, outlined a strategy to allow people to resume their usual activities safely after two years of pandemic disruptions.
The selection of Jha comes as the Biden administration has come under criticism for confusing public messaging around the virus as many restrictions and mandates are easing.
Biden’s statement announcing Jha’s appointment highlighted his communications skills and familiarity to Americans as a fixture on cable news.
“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,” he said.
Biden, in a statement, praised Zients and his team for “stunning" and “consequential” progress against the coronavirus pandemic.
“When Jeff took this job, less than 1% of Americans were fully vaccinated; fewer than half our schools were open; and unlike much of the developed world, America lacked any at-home COVID tests,” Biden said. “Today, almost 80% of adults are fully vaccinated; over 100 million are boosted; virtually every school is open; and hundreds of millions of at-home tests are distributed every month."
Biden noted that the U.S. is leading the global effort to fight COVID, "delivering more free vaccines to other countries than every other nation.”
The State Department on Thursday announced that the U.S. has shared more than 500 million doses with the world of 1.2 billion doses promised by the end of this year.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the transition reflected the changing circumstances in the pandemic response. “Jeff Zients’ superpower is that he is an operational and managerial guru," she said, while Jha is a respected public health communicator.
The 90-page National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan spells out initiatives and investments to continue to drive down serious illness and deaths from the virus, while preparing for potential new variants and providing employers and schools the resources to remain open.
“This plan lays out the roadmap to help us fight COVID-19 in the future as we move America from crisis to a time when COVID-19 does not disrupt our daily lives and is something we prevent, protect against, and treat,” the White House said. “We are not going to just ‘live with COVID.’ Because of our work, we are no longer going to let COVID-19 dictate how we live.”
Before his service in the Biden administration, Zients served as vice-chair of Biden's transition. In the Obama administration he was the director of the National Economic Council, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, and led the effort to fix HealthCare.gov after its disastrous rollout in 2013. He was also a top executive at the Advisory Board Company.
Quillian served as a deputy campaign manager for Biden in 2020, and was top aide to the chief of staff in the Obama White House, with stints at the National Security Council and the Pentagon.