As COVID lockdowns began two years ago, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, came onto a Newton public access show and explained the importance of social distancing to her neighbors.
“The front-line folks are working tirelessly on behalf of patients,” Walensky, then chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, said during the show, speaking with Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and answering questions from concerned residents. “We will ride this out together.”
A year and a half later, Fuller welcomed another prominent Newton resident on the show: Dr. Ashish Jha, who addressed the vaccine hesitancy and COVID skepticism that had taken root across the United States.
“This is certainly not a time to write-off people,” Jha, then-dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said during the October 2021 broadcast. “You talk to them, and you listen.”
The pair of Newton residents are a long way from public access these days. In appointments roughly a year apart, President Biden enlisted first Walensky and then Jha to help lead the nation’s fight against COVID-19 — Walensky as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention right at the start of his presidency, and Jha more recently to be White House coronavirus response coordinator.
Their ascension from spending their spare time assisting neighbors to occupying some of the highest posts in the federal public health response reflects a larger reality brought about by the two-year war against the pandemic. While Massachusetts has long sent its brightest political stars to Washington, the pandemic has created a new demand in the halls of power for the world-class medical expertise concentrated in the Greater Boston area.
It’s the honor of a lifetime to serve as the new White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@AshishKJha46) April 11, 2022
Jeff Zients leaves big shoes to fill
But the pandemic is still with us
And we must all work to continue to protect the health of the American people
Ready to get to work pic.twitter.com/yKOnlHsy6w
“The pandemic is not over,” Jha said in a video he tweeted last Monday, the start of his first full week on the job. He introduced himself in the direct, accessible manner he’s demonstrated throughout the pandemic, speaking to a camera in front of the White House, giving a taste of his personal history as an immigrant from India who arrived in the United States at age 13.
“The president has laid out a plan for how we get Americans through the rest of this pandemic, how we keep Americans safe, how we keep the economy going, how we keep schools open,” Jha continued. “My job is to be part of the team that executes on that plan to make sure that Americans are protected, and that we are all able to do the things that really matter most in our lives.”
Walensky, in a Twitter post last month, welcomed Jha to the Biden administration. Jha will be on a temporary leave from his position at Brown, a university spokesman said.
“I am excited to be working with @ashishkjha, a longtime respected colleague. I look forward to all we can accomplish together,” Walensky wrote.
“Massachusetts is a place that produces a lot of people who broadly believe in service, because they believe government can do good things for people,” said Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economics professor who advised the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act. “We’re a state that believes in government.”
Rising to a federal position can come with new challenges, and not all of Biden’s Massachusetts picks have succeeded. Eric Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, resigned as Biden’s chief science adviser in February after an internal investigation found credible evidence he bullied staffers and treated them disrespectfully.
Criticisms aimed at Walensky have focused on public statements she’s made as CDC director that she had to later defend, including saying last spring that it appeared vaccinated people could not spread COVID (they can, though their viral loads tend to be lower than those of unvaccinated people) and confusion over guidance, including changes to how long people should isolate after contracting COVID-19. And in a New York Times article last month, a health policy professor accused Jha of parroting Biden administration talking points before his appointment because he was too close with the administration.
Transitioning from a purely medical or public health role to a political appointment comes with new lessons, said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked for the late Senator Edward Kennedy and former Senate majority leader Harry Reid and is now a health policy adviser for the consulting firm APCO Worldwide.
“You can have an incredibly strong background in health care policy,” Manley said. “But if you don’t know how to play the political game, you may get in trouble.”
The way in which Walensky and Jha contributed their expertise closer to home demonstrates the strengths the pair bring to their national roles, local leaders and health officials said in interviews, reflecting on their experiences with them. Both have children in Newton’s schools.
Jha served on a Newton Medical Advisory Group with other physicians to help guide the city’s schools through the pandemic. The board drew upon the experience of Newton physicians who had expertise in public health, infectious diseases, and other experts including pediatricians and state education officials.
The board’s work on issues such as guidance on mask wearing and safety protocols directly impacted their families, said Dr. Jodi Larson, the chief quality officer for Boston Medical Center and fellow Newton school parent, who served on the group as well. That helped build the community’s trust as the board performed its duties, she said.
During meetings, Jha would often join remotely, Larson said, and share the latest updates on national COVID-19 developments. He would also carefully listen to concerns from the Newton community. Others praised Jha’s ability to connect with people while explaining complex subjects, whether in person or via his popular Twitter account.
“He is obviously very thoughtful, very close to the research and the data, and understanding how to interpret that in a reasonable, realistic way,” Larson said.
Fuller, the Newton mayor, has turned to both Jha and Walensky for advice during the pandemic, and frequently quoted them in her weekly newsletters to residents, and praised their public health work in a State of the City speech last year.
In a recent interview, Fuller said both doctors quickly agreed when asked to respond to questions on local Newton television.
“Both Dr. Walensky and Dr. Jha are very humane and empathetic and compassionate people, and it informs their work as doctors,” Fuller said. “This is a time of anxiety and uncertainty. And to have their humanity wrapped around us, I think, was enormously comforting.”
In Newton, that life-saving advice was vital to leaders such as the Rev. Devlin Scott, lead pastor of NewCity Church.
He said that while he never spoke with them directly, the public health guidance was critical to helping keep people safe as religious leaders responded to the trauma of the crisis.
“The spiritual responsibility of the church really needed to be focused on those who were hurting and helping those who were in need,” Scott said. ”I, for one, was very grateful that the experts in science and infectious disease were doing their job so that I could do mine.”
As Walensky’s rocky tenure shows, fighting COVID in Washington is a lot more complicated.
“You get immersed in new political environments, and you have to learn how that works and how to wade through political waters that you don’t have to worry about when you’re just a member of the community in Boston or Newton,” said Dr. Donald Berwick, president emeritus and senior fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Healthcare Improvement who served as head of Medicare and Medicaid during the Obama administration.
Berwick, who has worked with Jha, said the newly-minted COVID coordinator will have to call on a wide range of connections and build new professional relationships to succeed. “You have to maintain and tend to relationships with Congress, with the White House, with media, with lobbyists, with sibling agencies in other departments. And that all takes time and energy.”
“Going into the federal government apparatus is challenging. The most important challenge one faces is balancing the best thing to do with the feasible thing to do,” said Gruber of MIT.
Local health leaders said Walensky and Jha are well-suited to their national roles, including meeting the challenge of continuing to build Americans’ trust in public health and combat the onslaught of misinformation about the potentially deadly virus.
Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a Boston University epidemiologist and Newton resident who has known Walensky for years, said she gave good advice to Fuller and Governor Charlie Baker, for whom she served on the state’s Reopening Advisory Board.
“That was recognized, and she was promoted to give scientific advice to the national government,” Horsburgh said. “She clearly has the credibility to lead the agency.”
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a Newton resident and director of Boston College’s global public health program, called Biden’s selection of Walensky and Jha for his health team a “very, very good thing for the country.”
Larson, Jha’s colleague on the Newton advisory board, said the appointments of Walensky and Jha underscored the role Boston plays in the nation’s health system.
“Boston is a mecca for health care, so I think having Dr. Walensky from Mass General and Dr. Jha from Brown, it says a lot,” Larson said. “We are at the forefront and epicenter of health care.”