Joe Biden has vowed to put science back at the heart of the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic. Yet the man he chose as his coronavirus czar in the White House is not a scientist, but rather a management consultant and investor known to former Obama staff as “Mr. Fix It ”for its ability to overthrow failed government projects.
When Mr Biden takes over the presidency, Jeff Zients will be the president’s Covid-19 coordinator intervention force, a position that will allow him to oversee everything being done within the federal government to combat the virus, from deciding travel restrictions to managing the vaccine supply chain.
Unlike most of the new president’s other virus advisers, Mr. Zients has no scientific or medical training. Still, his friends say the former consultant, entrepreneur, and even deli owner is the perfect choice to fix the mess left by the Trump administration.
“What has been sorely lacking over the past year is an organized response,” said Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. “You need someone to lead the orchestra. They don’t need to know how to play all the instruments, you just need to know what to do to get the most out of them.
Mr. Zients takes office at a critical time in the pandemic. The United States has been hit hardest by the disease than most other countries, with increasing cases, hospitalizations and deaths throughout the fall and into the early winter. 2,141 other deaths caused death toll at 392,428, according to the Covid Tracking Project, while an alternative methodology used by Johns Hopkins University puts the tally at over 400,000.
Zients’ role will be to revamp the entire pandemic response, a task that will likely test his management skills as he attempts to coordinate different federal, state and local organizations.
One of his first jobs was working for Bain Consulting, where he later said he “fell in love with [the company’s] culture, teamwork. . . and analytical rigor ”. It was there that he met his wife Mary Menell, from a South African family so closely linked that Nelson Mandela attended their wedding.
Mr. Zients then helped lead the Advisory Board, a health research firm, and its spin-off, the Corporate Executive Board. He made tens of millions of dollars participating in the IPOs of the two companies. In 2002, Fortune Magazine estimated his fortune at $ 149 million, making him the 25th richest American under 40, one place above Julia Roberts and two behind Elon Musk.
In 2009, Barack Obama hired Zients as the government’s first “performance manager”, before asking him to reverse the launch of HealthCare.gov, the insurance exchange site used to distribute the policies on offer. under the Affordable Care Act.
Denis McDonough, who was Mr. Obama’s chief of staff at the time, asked Mr. Zients to take on the post during a walk on the South Lawn of the White House. “He didn’t ask what the conditions were and wasn’t worried that it was extremely difficult work. He just wanted to get started, ”recalls McDonough.
Zients’ response was to bring in the private sector: he hired experts from Google and made Optum, a division of United Healthcare, the prime contractor for the project. The strategy worked, and the technical issues were corrected in time for people to start purchasing the new state-backed health insurance policies the following year.
Colleagues say Zients was also a calm manager and a great talent scout.
Since leaving government, Mr. Zients has had an eclectic career, joining Facebook as a board member, but also helping to start a popular bagel store in Washington, Call Your Mother.
Andrew Dana, his partner in this business, says Zients helped him navigate the chaos of starting a business and focus on a few key issues, such as where the deli was located. He said it was more than just an investment for Mr Zients, who requested to attend smoked salmon tastings.
Mr Zients’ admiration for the private sector is viewed with suspicion by some on the left, with progressives questioning whether he would be willing to give government a big enough role or risk disrupting the business world.
Max Moran, research assistant at the Revolving Door Project, which monitors the links between business and government, said: “I’m afraid his priority isn’t necessarily to do what will help most people immediately, but to do things that do. not to disrupt business as usual, let it disrupt the stock market or create regulatory uncertainty, or develop the state. “
Others say they are worried that the most important coronavirus work in the White House will be done by a non-scientist, especially if it undermines or interferes with the work being done by the CDC, which was frequently sidelined by the Trump administration.
Lawrence Gostin, professor of public health at Georgetown University, said: “The essential functions, which were really performed by the White House under the Trump administration, must fall almost exclusively to the CDC, without interference from the White House. “
Mr Gostin said Mr Zients had the executive experience to coordinate the deployment, but said he should avoid emulating the approach taken by outgoing Vice President Mike Pence, who chaired the group of White House coronavirus work.
“If he starts acting more like Pence, reviewing and monitoring the CDC’s response, it will be a disaster,” he said.
Mr Zients’ first task will be to revamp the vaccine distribution plan, which stumbled in its early days. But his early plans have reportedly failed to impress Mr Biden, who reportedly criticized Mr Zients’ team for failing to come up with sufficiently detailed proposals.
Mr Biden officials deny reports of tensions between the two, and the incoming administration has since released its plan on how to increase vaccinations.
Announcing the plan, Zients said last week that it was a “fundamentally different approach” from that taken by the Trump administration. Critics point out, however, that many measures had already been taken by the outgoing government, such as releasing almost all available doses and calling for immediate vaccination of those over 65.
Others said the plan shows Mr. Zients’ reluctance to recommend sweeping political solutions, such as asking the U.S. National Guard to administer vaccinations.
But allies say the proposals show Mr. Zients has identified obstacles in the existing deployment, which bodes well for his ability to revise the rest of the response. Mr. McDonough said, “Jeff’s real skill is that he can break really complex problems down into little, executable chunks.”
Mr Dana said: “I will sleep better knowing that Jeff is responsible for fighting the coronavirus.”
Additional reporting by Peter Wells in New York
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