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Dr. Ashish Jha on the White House ending the COVID-19 emergency declaration

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we have made a trip across town today to the White House. We have just stepped past security, stepped inside the complex. We are headed in to meet a man who I've interviewed before more than once but never in person because of pandemic protocols, which is actually precisely why we're here.

Nice to meet you.

ASHISH JHA: I know.

KELLY: In person.

JHA: Exactly.

KELLY: Thanks for seeing us.

JHA: My pleasure.

KELLY: I shook hands today for the first time with Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator. His job is changing fast with the federal public health emergency ending this Thursday.

JHA: A country can't be in emergency mode forever.

KELLY: Title 42 restrictions at the border will end. The government will no longer buy vaccines or tests to offer the public free of charge. After more than three years of emergency status, I asked Jha what comes next for the country and for his job.

JHA: Ah, well, we are in a better place and the COVID team will be winding down. And I have been focused really on making sure that we have a smooth transition, and we'll see what happens next.

KELLY: We'll see what happens next. Right now, you're installed in the office and still plenty of work to do.

JHA: Exactly.

KELLY: Do you expect case numbers to continue going down as more and more people get COVID, more and more people get vaccinated and boosted?

JHA: You know, it's been very hard to predict where this virus goes. I think that has been the lesson of the last three years. And obviously, what we know is that as long as people stay up on their vaccines, they get treated, that we can prevent nearly all instances of serious illness and death. But the virus continues to evolve, and we expect that evolution to continue. And my hope is that we can really prevent people from getting seriously ill.

KELLY: Yeah. For the record, you're still recommending that people do get vaccinated.

JHA: For the record, I am very clear that people need to stay up with vaccines. We think that's really, really important.

KELLY: OK. How many COVID deaths a year do you think will become the norm in the United States? I mean, understanding that any death is too many deaths, what's going to be acceptable?

JHA: Yeah. Well, we are at about 150 deaths a day right now. I think that is a number that is too high and - especially given that most of those deaths are preventable. I don't have a number that is acceptable or the norm. The target in some ways has got to be that we got to get as close to zero as possible.

KELLY: So how do you think about the threat that COVID poses now in spring of 2023?

JHA: It's still a real problem. I mean, people often ask me, you know, is this now like the flu? And I'm like, no, it's like COVID. It is a different virus. Flu has a very specific seasonality to it. That's not what we see yet with COVID. Even at 150 deaths a day, which is way below where it was - even if today is the new standard, that's 50,000 deaths a year. I think that should be unacceptable to us. So I see COVID as an ongoing threat, a real challenge to the health and well-being of the American people. And, you know, we know how to defeat this thing, but we've got to keep pressing. And we've got to build better vaccines and better treatments to make sure that we get even more and more effective over time.

KELLY: I was thinking, looking back, March 11, 2020, is a day I think a lot of people might point to as when the world seemed to turn upside down. The WHO declared pandemic.

JHA: Yeah.

KELLY: The NBA shut down. Broadway shut down. A lot of parts of the country have felt, you know, back to normal - and I'm putting air quotes around normal...

JHA: Yeah.

KELLY: ...But for a long time now. That said, if you had to point to a moment where things return to normal, do you think this week is going to be it?

JHA: Well, it is going to mark a moment for a lot of people. I mean, you know, look, there is an old saying - pandemics end with a whimper, not with a bang. Pandemics often begin with a bang. That moment of March 11, it was like, whoa. The idea of ending with a whimper is the idea that, like, pandemics fade. There are moments we mark. Ending of a public health emergency is an important moment. And for a lot of people, this will feel like that transition. But there's no question that for a lot of Americans, that what the pandemic represented is in the rearview mirror. And for other Americans, particularly who are immunocompromised, who are high risk, this moment, while a transition, doesn't make the threat go away.

KELLY: Yeah. Are we any better prepared for the next pandemic than we were for this one?

JHA: No question - we are better prepared. We can now track pathogens in the wastewater. If there's a new outbreak, we can figure out where it is in the country pretty close to immediately. We couldn't do that three years ago. And our ability to do surveillance is just at a dramatically different level. I think our ability to build vaccines and treatments, you know, these were theoretical things that we could do. We actually, by demonstrating that we could - we did them, we have learned a lot about how to do them better in the future. There is still a lot of work to do, but Congress has to step up and support that. We have to build better vaccine platforms. We have to build on this surveillance that we have. CDC had a set of authorities where it could get data from states. That goes away with the end of the public health emergency. That's a problem. And so we have to work out a way in which CDC can continue getting data from states, so we can have a national picture on things. So plenty of work to do.

KELLY: What about the consequences of public health being so much more politicized than it was before all this?

JHA: Yeah.

KELLY: I'm thinking of vaccines and thinking if we are lucky enough that with the next pandemic, we're able to make a vaccine that works, a lot of people are going to say, yeah, no thanks.

JHA: Yeah. No, I worry a lot about the explosion of bad information that has permeated our information ecosystem, no question about it.

KELLY: And trust in public health officials - respectfully, it's not where it was.

JHA: No, it was not, and it is not. And we have to rebuild that trust. Look, this is an effort that all of us have to engage in. There were clearly mistakes that public health officials made. We've got to own that. We've got to address that. There's also a lot of people out there who have used every mistake, every misstep by a public health person to undermine people's confidence in public health, undermine people's confidence in vaccines. We've got to counter that with better information. It's not just one or two people. As a country, we really have to do a better job of communicating and teaching people how evidence works, how science works, how public health works.

KELLY: Yeah. Last thing, we have been talking about the virus and the toll it's taken in terms of death and the medical toll. What about the emotional toll, the mental toll? We see reports of depression...

JHA: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Of suicide, have gone up...

JHA: Yeah.

KELLY: ...In the pandemic. And I wonder, is the country prepared to deal with that? How are you coping with that?

JHA: Yeah. There are a lot of things that have contributed to the mental health challenge that we see in the American people. Obviously, the isolation, the loss of life and suffering - you know, literally 1.1 million - more than a million Americans have died - for their families and friends. And then I think the kind of - a lot of the anger and vitriol that has come about has caused further isolation and challenges for people. We have always underinvested in mental health. We have always under, sort of, valued the importance of mental health. My hope is coming out of this pandemic, we redouble our efforts there, understand that as a country we are not going to heal from this pandemic until we really address the mental health crisis that it has precipitated.

KELLY: Dr. Jha, thank you.

JHA: Thank you.

KELLY: White House COVID-19 coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Gus Contreras
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.