New White House Covid-19 czar says not 'excessively concerned' about rise in cases

A resident in New York is tested for Covid-19 at a pop-up site on April 11, 2022.
PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) -The new White House Covid-19 response coordinator, Dr Ashish Jha, said on Monday (April 11) that while there had been a recent uptick in new US coronavirus cases, he was not overly concerned.

"We've got to watch this very carefully - obviously, I never like to see infections rising - I think we've got to be careful," Dr Jha said on the Today show. "But I don't think this is a moment where we have to be excessively concerned."

The public health expert made several media appearances on Monday - his first official day, according to the White House - and he pointed to low hospitalisation numbers across the United States.

The vast majority of the country has low community levels of Covid-19, according to calculations performed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that are designed to assess the number of new cases in a community and the strain on its hospitals, a point also made on Sunday by Dr Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's top pandemic adviser.

"Right now, that is showing an uptick, but not showing substantial changes in what we should be doing," Dr Jha said on CNN, referring to the CDC framework. "And I think the CDC policy is right on this."

And while he touted the role of at-home tests, Dr Jha acknowledged many of those results may go unreported, underpinning, he said, the importance of hospitalisations as a metric.

Dr Jha's tenure begins as a highly transmissible Omicron sub-variant, known as BA.2, becomes the dominant version among new US cases. As at Sunday, the US was averaging more than 31,000 cases a day, an increase of 3 per cent over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database, just a fraction of the height of the Omicron winter surge.

Still, New York City and Washington are among the places seeing steeper increases than the nation overall, though their average numbers of new cases remain far lower than recent peaks too. Prominent officials in both cities, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Mayor Eric Adams, have tested positive in recent days, as have some Broadway stars.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that both Mr Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris had tested negative in the past 24 hours. Ms Harris had been considered a close contact of her communications director, who tested positive last week, but the vice-president was now five days post-exposure, Ms Psaki said.

A number of colleges and universities in the country have reinstated mask mandates as they battle outbreaks on campus. On Monday, the city of Philadelphia announced it would soon reinstate an indoor mask mandate.

And after the Gridiron Club and Foundation's annual dinner in Washington on April 2, at least 80 attendees tested positive, Mr Tom DeFrank, a contributing editor for National Journal and president of the Gridiron Club, said in an e-mail on Monday afternoon. The number of new cases reported each day has been declining, he said, adding that reported symptoms remain mild, with several asymptomatic cases.

"Now that we are nine days after the dinner, the connection between a new positive test and our dinner is certainly arguable, particularly for public officials who have had a full week of public events," Mr DeFrank said in a statement.

"What it reminds us is the pandemic isn't over," Dr Jha said on Good Morning America, referring to the number of cases after the Gridiron dinner, which included some Cabinet members.

"We are still going to see cases of this virus spreading. And we have to continue to be vigilant. We have to continue to be careful."

Neither Mr Biden nor Ms Pelosi attended the Gridiron dinner, and Ms Pelosi said on Monday that she would be leaving isolation on Tuesday after testing negative on Monday.

Elsewhere in the House, Democrat Rashida Tlaib said on Monday she had tested positive. In Connecticut, Lieutenant-Governor Susan Bysiewicz said she tested positive too.

Dr Jha also told the Today show that the CDC would get the final say on the future of the mask mandate on aeroplanes and other public transport - but said that extending the requirement, which lasts until at least April 18, "is absolutely on the table".

Dr Jha replaced Mr Jeffrey Zients, who left the position to return to his private life, according to the White House. Mr Zients, an entrepreneur and management consultant, steered the White House response and US vaccination campaign through multiple variants.

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