Ashish Jha, the new White House coronavirus response coordinator, took over the job about a month ago. His first press conference came amid a surge in cases and made it clear he must fight a battle against two enemies: the virus and the complacency of policymakers.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Jha, the former dean of 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.
Firstly, the coronavirus is on the rise. Cases have risen 57 percent in the United States in the past two weeks, according to the New York Times tracker. Walensky noted at the briefing that one-third of Americans live in an area that currently has high or moderate levels of transmission. Hospitalizations and deaths are not yet is growing at the same rate, likely reflecting vaccination and the availability of antivirals, but any increase in the spread of Covid-19 puts people at greater risk.
The main related message I got from Jha and his colleagues: Unless that American public in the broader sense – and Congress in particular — if we continue to take Covid-19 seriously, the US will suffer much needless illness and death throughout the rest of the year.
“People are tired. People want to move on. The good news is that we’re in a much better place than we were two years ago, largely because of the skills that science has delivered for us,” said Jha. “Vaccines, boosters, therapeutics, tests, masks – all of these make a huge difference. And we need to keep using that as the virus continues to evolve and as the virus continues to do what it does.”
The coronavirus is not becoming complacent. The latest iterations of the Omicron variant are more contagious than anything that came before. But at the same time, America is easing its vigilance. People meanwhile go back to their lives Congress is teetering on another round of support for the country’s pandemic response.
A third of Americans have not yet received two doses of the Covid-19 vaccines. Booster rates lag behind, with just 63 percent of people over 64 – those most likely to benefit – having received an extra dose. Children under 5 years old still can’t shoot. As the virus gets better at bypassing previous 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.
White House asks Congress to act on Covid-19 funding
The White House continues to urge people to be vigilant. Walensky encouraged people in high-transmission communities — you can check the CDC’s county-by-county tracker — to wear masks indoors. Even in places with lower transmission rates, people might still consider avoiding large indoor gatherings or wearing a mask if they want to avoid infection.
But there was a tacit acknowledgment that the broader behavioral changes are limited for individuals who take their own precautions. The country needs to vaccinate and empower as many people as possible and make treatment and testing readily available to minimize serious illness and deaths.
But complacency in Congress is jeopardizing those efforts.
The White House has been asking Congress for billions of dollars for the next phase of the pandemic response since early March. It looked like the money would be approved quickly, but it was pulled from a government spending bill at the last minute. Lawmakers have been trying to strike a deal ever since.
At one point, Congress cut about $5 billion in funding for global relief efforts, money that would have aided immunization efforts in other parts of the world. where interest rates lag behind. Jha on Wednesday, perhaps not coincidentally, warned of short-sightedness in helping the rest of the world fight the coronavirus.
“There is no ‘domestic only’ strategy for a global pandemic,” Jha said. “We must now continue that work by making sure we get vaccines into people’s arms.”
But Congressional inaction is also jeopardizing the response to the pandemic in the United States. A next generation of Covid-19 vaccines is expected to be available soon, but without further funding from Congress, the White House will not be able to guarantee vaccination to everyone who wants one. They may need to ration next-generation vaccine doses they can afford and limit access to those most at risk, a possibility Politico called “unthinkable” a year ago.
The federal government, too, needs more funding to increase supplies of antiviral drugs that can mitigate infections. Jha noted in the briefing that prescriptions for Paxlovid had quadrupled in the last month, outpacing the increase in cases, a sign the US is finally doing better at getting the treatment to people.
But that progress could be short-lived if Congress doesn’t act.
“Eventually we will run out of treatments that we have,” Jha said. “And without additional resources, we’re going to find ourselves in the fall or winter with people who get infected and don’t have treatments available because we’ve run out of them.”
Testing, too, could run out as diagnostics companies shut down production lines with no guarantee of a significant market that would come with an infusion of federal funds.
“All of this is incredibly preventable,” Jha pleaded. “We should do everything we can to ensure that this scenario does not occur.”
The Biden administration has played a significant role in pushing the country out of dire straits. It has relaxed masking and isolation guidelines, sometimes sooner than some experts deemed appropriate. It has accepted a message that Americans must learn to live with the virus.
But that transition to a new normal has always depended on the ready availability of vaccines, tests and treatments, something the White House is still struggling to achieve.
Two years into the pandemic, it should be clear what’s at stake. Fewer vaccines, fewer treatments, and fewer tests mean more infections, more serious illnesses, and more deaths. This is the scenario the country is staring at: a million people are already dead and more are to come because politicians have become complacent.
“I think it would be awful,” Jha said. “I think we would see a lot of unnecessary deaths if that happened.”
The question now is whether his warnings will be heeded — or whether they will fall on the deaf ears of a country and Congress that has moved on.