President Joe Biden’s new COVID-19 response czar was a founding father of America’s “14 days to flatten the curve” lockdown strategy.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, is a highly credentialed healthcare policy scholar. He spent time as a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and earned degrees from Columbia and Harvard with a residency at University of California, San Francisco. He has also been one of America’s most vocal advocates of COVID-19 restrictions, from vaccine mandates to business lockdowns.
The Biden team is making the move to Jha as it shifts to treating the virus as endemic, rather than the “war-time” approach deployed under the leadership of previous response coordinator Jeffrey Zients. However, Jha has left the door open to reimplementing restrictions if future waves of the virus come along, tweeting in late January that public health experts should be open to dropping mandates because they may need to ask people to “pull back or mask up again” in the future.
Jha is perhaps most notable for his advocacy for a two-week lockdown of the entire country in March 2020, when the virus was first beginning to rapidly spread across America. He received substantial media attention as a Harvard doctor calling for a national quarantine, making him one of the earliest public health experts to advocate for lockdowns. Jha’s advocacy, along with others, helped lead to the adoption of the plan, “two weeks to flatten the curve,” when coronavirus restrictions were first put in place to allow authorities time to ramp up testing capacity and develop strategies for combatting the pandemic.
On @BBCNews trying to explain the American COVID19 strategy
The UK is in a lockdown
The US needs one too
I support reopening the economy. When we are ready
I’m worried that if we open when we aren’t ready, we will harm public health and fail to get the economy back on track
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) March 25, 2020
Jha doubled down on the strategy later. In April 2020, he criticized authorities for not locking down soon enough, arguing that many deaths could have been avoided with earlier restrictions. He made those comments on CNN, a network he became a frequent guest on, in addition to others. (RELATED: CDC Says It Accidentally Inflated Children’s COVID Death Numbers In ‘Coding Logic Error’)
The foremost benefit of appointing Jha may be that media experience in an administration which has, at times, struggled with its messaging regarding the pandemic. He has been one of the most publicly visible public health experts in America, appearing on networks and shows from Newsmax to MSNBC to Sesame Street. In the first 14 months of the pandemic, despite not being a virologist, immunologist or vaccinologist, Jha either appeared or was cited on television news more than 60,000 times, according to TVEyes. He was making 10-12 TV appearances per day at his peak. He claims to have, at one point, been receiving more than 100 media requests per day.
In those media appearances and tweets, Jha argued for policy in line with the mainstream COVID-19 orthodoxy, and at times has gone beyond it. He has been an advocate for kids masking in schools, and in February, when Democratic governors en masse began to drop mask mandates, said they should consider waiting a bit longer.
As the pandemic waned on from late 2021 into 2022, his views on some issues have not moderated in the way they have for many others. In December, he repeated his earlier calls for a vaccine mandate for air travel, despite acknowledging that airplanes are one of the most well-ventilated places a person can be indoors. On Jan. 31, 2022, he said that indoor capacity limits still “make sense,” as the majority of state and local authorities already dropped them by that time.
Right now, the storm is starting to ebb
Infections are falling, hospitalizations down
But with infections still high
Indoor mask mandates make sense. As do indoor capacity limits
Many states still have them (though bars are open in every city in America, as far as I know)
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) February 1, 2022
Jha advocated for vaccine mandates for air travel after tweeting a thread about a harrowing experience he had flying next to a woman whose mask slipped below her nose while talking.
He claimed in February that there is “not much evidence either way” regarding whether prolonged mask-wearing harms children, a stance opposed by some other experts. As recently as September 2021, he went further than many other public health experts and called for a vaccine mandate for interstate travel of any kind.
First, let’s talk evidence
Do masks work to reduce transmission?
What about in kids?
The evidence is less strong but clearly, the weight of evidence says that masking also works in kids
Are there harms?
Not much evidence either way but there could be
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) February 10, 2022
Vaccine mandates for interstate travel
I think this last one is marginal (not a lot of spread on planes) but might have been useful
But overall, very solid plan
And if we implement it right
Will make a VERY big difference
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) September 9, 2021
Jha has been no stranger to wading into politics. He has repeatedly singled out Florida with criticism for its pandemic response. Specifically, he has criticized Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies outlawing mask and vaccine mandates by certain entities, and has blasted the governor for listening to public health experts associated with the Great Barrington Declaration, calling them “clowns.”
Instead, its abrogation of other public health measures
FL banning mask mandates and doing far less testing than CA
Because FL listening to @gbdeclaration “let it rip” clowns
Which has thus caused enormous, unnecessary suffering and deaths for people of Florida
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) September 8, 2021
The Great Barrington Declaration argues for protecting society’s most vulnerable to the virus, such as the elderly, with public health measures, while allowing low-risk individuals to live as unencumbered as possible with limited restrictions. Jha’s called out other herd immunity advocates, such as those in Sweden, as well.
One of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, called Jha’s appointment “a disappointment.”
“Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Jha has been a proponent of failed & destructive policies including lockdowns, school closures, and vaccine passports and mandates,” Bhattacharya told the Daily Caller. “He has also behaved unprofessionally toward colleagues who had different ideas than him to close off discussion and debate and create a false sense of scientific consensus about his views in the scientific community where one did not exist. I will nevertheless be rooting for Dr. Jha’s success in his new position as the world will need better policies as it emerges from the emergency phase of the pandemic.”
In 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests spread rapidly across the country following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Jha wrote an op-ed arguing that mass gatherings for protests were acceptable because, in part, “there is a serious risk and grave public health cost to not addressing systemic racism against black people in America.” (RELATED: Where The Heck Is Anthony Fauci? People Are Talking)
Jha came under fire himself for not disclosing that he had been one of many experts receiving “updates and announcements” from the White House communications team, but denied that this amounted to him receiving “talking points” from the Biden administration.
“None of his past statements had been coordinated with the White House and he had “never received specific talking points”. But he is on a list of experts who regularly receive “updates and announcements” from the White House communications team”. https://t.co/QytUA1NZPv
— Lakshmi Ganapathi (@Lakshmi_RKG) March 20, 2022
The White House announced Jha will take the reins of its COVID-19 response in April. He’ll enter the position at a time when some public health officials like Anthony Fauci are warning of an impending new wave of COVID-19 cases due to a new subvariant of Omicron.