Biden’s Covid Chief Promotes Mandates for Annual Vaccines

President Joe Biden’s Covid chief Dr. ‘Hashish’ Jha is promoting calls for annual vaccines to be mandated.

Jha, the White House Covid coordinator, is excited about the fact that healthcare facilities around the nation will still be mandating annual Covid vaccines (despite natural immunity and the scientific fact that the mRNA shots don’t significantly slow viral transmission).

This is what Jha had to say on the PBS News Hour.


The PBS News Hour’s transcript follows below:

NAWAZ: “In the earliest days of the pandemic, when little was definitively known about Covid-19, Dr. Ashish Jha emerged as an authoritative and trusted voice on public health and the other controversial issues. Today he’s the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, a job he’s held for over a year, but with the public health emergency officially over, he’s leaving the Biden Administration this week and returning to his role as the dean of Brown University’s Public school of Health. Before he leaves Washington, he joins us here now. Welcome, Dr. Jha, thanks for being here.”

JHA: “Thanks for having me.”

NAWAZ: “So the public health emergency is officially over. Your last day is tomorrow. Should people take this to mean they no longer have to worry about Covid?”

JHA: “People should take this to mean that we’re in a much better place with Covid, and we are. Infections, hospitalizations, deaths, all of them are at some of the lowest level that we’ve seen in the pandemic. We have widespread availability of vaccines and treatments. We’re at a point where we can manage this virus. Of course, the virus can still take unexpected turns, as it has, and we have spent a lot of time in the last year preparing in case that happens. And if that happens, we’ll be ready for that too.”

NAWAZ: “Where we are right now is — still we have something like over 750 people still dying a week of Covid, about 100 a day, correct me if my numbers are wrong. Is that our new normal? We should expect those numbers to continue?”

JHA: “It is about 100 a day. I still think that’s too high. It is some of the lowest we’ve seen in the pandemic, but still too high, because if you just annualize it, it’s 36,000 deaths a year. That’s a lot. I think we can continue to drive that number lower. We know what to do: getting people up to date on their vaccines, treatments. We do those things — you know, 90% of the deaths that are still happening, people who are not up to date on their vaccines.”

NAWAZ: “Well, let’s talk about that then, because the virus has shown the ability to continue mutating. You’ve said this before. Current vaccination rates among Americans, only 17% of Americans have gotten that new updated bivalent booster. How worried are you about another spike from another more dangerous variant?”

JHA: “Yeah, it’s certainly possible. It’s hard to predict. I mean, none of us would have predicted Omicron when it first showed up. So, it is hard to predict what’s going to happen with the virus. What we know is that vaccines, as long as people stay up to date, remain terrific at preventing serious illness and death, they are extraordinarily good. So, we have to keep that message going. I think we have to keep educating the American people, particularly important for higher risk people, seniors, those who are immunocompromised, but really good for everybody.”

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NAWAZ: “But those numbers do remain so low when it comes to uptake on the boosters. I mean, why do you think that — you’ve talked before about misinformation playing a role, but also the fact that a lot of people saw when vaccines didn’t necessarily prevent transmission, they got sick, they got better, it was sort of like vindication, they don’t need to get the shot. At this stage, how do you convince people to get that shot?”

JHA: “Yeah, so there are a couple of things. I mean, first of all, I agree that — like, not as many people got vaccinated as I had hoped, as I think we all had hoped, everybody in public health. I think there are a couple of things there. One is, of course people had gotten a lot of Covid vaccines in the months leading up to it, so it’s not like a new thing and so a lot of people felt like, ‘Well, I’ve gotten my two shots or three shots. Maybe I’m okay.’ The second is, Amna, there has been just a tremendous amount of bad information out there about these vaccines, and that has made it much harder to break through. We have tried. I’ve known people in public health community, physician leaders have tried. It has been hard. My hope is, moving forward, that we get to a point where, you know, we’re likely to have a new vaccine this fall. FDA will make that decision. People go and get their annual flu vaccine. If they see this as a routine part of care, you know, I don’t — every time I get a flu vaccine, I don’t think, ‘Is this my 28th flu shot or 29th?’ I just think it’s my annual flu shot.”

NAWAZ: “Right.”

JHA: “For most people, if they think of it as their annual vaccine, they get it when they get their flu shot. I think it’ll make a more important difference.”

NAWAZ: “If it should be something that’s annual, as FDA seemed to indicate it will be, is that the kind of thing you think states should start to, say, require for children the same way they do for other immunizations?”

JHA: “This is going to be a decision by local districts, schools, states. Flu shots are largely not required by very many folks, except in healthcare. So, as a physician, my hospitals required a flu shot every year. I would have gotten it anyway, but I was required to. I think you’ll see that in a lot of facilities and lot of healthcare facilities, but the flu shot, Covid shot, both of them are going to end up being things that will make an enormous difference and I think you’re going to see strong encouragement. I don’t know that we’re going to see a lot of requirements. I think some local districts might decide to do that, but I think that’s probably not likely.”

NAWAZ: “I want to ask you about long Covid, too, because I don’t think we talk enough about it sometimes. There are some studies that have said something like 16 million Americans have some version of long Covid, maybe 65 million people worldwide. What kind of resources and support should be made available considering the potential health care impact this is going to have on us.”

JHA: “Yeah, it’s a great question. Look, first of all, long Covid is a real phenomenon. We know people, when they get infected, a small proportion of those people end up having substantial symptoms that can be quite debilitating for the long run. Here’s what we know about long Covid. We know that if you’re up to date on your vaccines, you’re much less likely to get long Covid. So that’s good news. There’s some preliminary evidence that if you get treated during your initial course of infection, that may reduce your risk of long Covid. That all said, there are still many Americans who have it. My view is there are two or three things. One is we need a lot more research, and NIH is driving a lot of this research, on understanding long Covid. It’s probably various, it’s multiple conditions, not one. We’re going to see trials of new therapies against long Covid. And then, of course, we need to provide support for people both in healthcare and, if they’re really disabled, their disability support. All of that the administration is very focused on. The president has tasked us to develop a comprehensive plan that the administration is working on to take care people with long Covid.”

NAWAZ: “Are we better prepared today than we were 14 months ago, when you took office, than we were at the beginning of the pandemic, for the next pandemic? Are we better prepared?”

JHA: “Undoubtedly. So, it’s interesting, even among my public health friends, there’s a little bit of bashing of like, ‘Oh, we’re even worse off than we were three and a half years ago.’ That is just not true. Let me make the case. First, we have built up, over the last two and a half years under this administration, we have built up a national wastewater surveillance system that allows us to have a much better understanding of what viruses are spreading in which communities. We did not have that three and a half years ago. Our testing infrastructure is better. We have developed and invested in building and manufacturing vaccines in the United States, so the next time there’s a new pandemic, we can quickly develop a new vaccine, we can manufacture enough, not just for America, but for the world. We have made substantial investments. Are we fully prepared for future pandemics? No, there’s a lot of work still to do. We need resources to do a lot of that work, and that’s why partnership with Congress is important, but we are undoubtedly better than where we were.”

NAWAZ: “When you look back at what we’ve lived through, right, since January of 2020, over 6 million Americans had been hospitalized due to Covid, over 1 million Americans died, over a million Americans died, and the enormity of that data does not seem to line up with where we are day to day and our reality right now. In some parts of the country, it’s almost like it never happened to some degree. How do you, in your role, how do you reflect on that?”

JHA: “Yeah. So, my reflections are, first, it has been an enormous toll on the American people. 1.1 million Americans, if you think about it, their family, their friends, it has affected tens of millions of Americans very directly, that loss of that loved one. I think it is — I think we are starting to see some people try to do a little revisionism of, ‘It was never that bad, we should have never done any of the things that we did to try to protect people,’ and I remind them we had refrigerated trucks outside of hospitals because the morgues were full. So, I think it has been incredibly costly. I think we have to learn the lessons, make sure we are better prepared. That is the best way to honor the folks, the people who have passed away and who have suffered in this pandemic.”

NAWAZ: “That is Dr. Ashish Jha, the outgoing Covid-19 White House response coordinator. Dr. Jha, thank you so much.”

JHA: “Thank you for having me here.”

By Hunter Fielding
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