In the wake of stating that most Americans can “ignore” COVID-19 and a public rebuttal by former Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, the former head of federal response to the disease has refused to mention masking as a way to avoid possible infection.
The Boston Globe first published Dr. Ashish Jha’s op-ed on July 31 2023 in which he claimed that “now a few basic steps mean you can ignore COVID safely.” Jha, who is currently the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, wrote:
The truth is that we can now prevent nearly every COVID death. People who are up to date on their vaccines and get treated when infected rarely get seriously ill. Even for the vulnerable like my parents, who are in their 80s, vaccines coupled with treatments provide a very high degree of protection against serious illness. This is also true for most immunocompromised individuals. The fact is, now a few basic steps mean you can ignore COVID safely — and get back to doing things that matter, even with COVID still around. Think of these safety measures like the routine check-ups that keep your car safe to drive.
However Jha’s optimism was rebutted by former federal Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, who noted in an August 7 2023 piece for the Globe that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 17 percent of U.S. residents had received all available vaccines and booster shots against COVID-19, down from 81 percent who had received at least one shot.
“Ignoring COVID now also means disregarding its impacts on our most vulnerable populations,” Adams wrote. “COVID-19 remains life-threatening to people with the highest risk of severe disease, including elderly adults, people with other risk factors such as asthmas or diabetes, and immunocompromised individuals. A recent CDC analysis found that people aged 65 to 74 were 5 times more likely to be hospitalized and 60 times more likely to die from COVID than adults aged 18 to 29.”
Jha also made several allusions to “treatments,” without naming any specific examples other than the prescription drug Paxlovid. He did not mention that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had only that day launched clinical trials to determine whether Paxlovid as well as six other treatments were suitable for patients suffering from long-term symptoms caused by the disease — a.k.a. Long COVID. Instead, he claimed that “the evidence here is reassuring as well”:
Those who are up to date on their vaccines are far less likely to get long COVID, and when they do, it tends to be shorter-lived and less severe. And treatments may help reduce it too. For now, there is no foolproof way of avoiding long COVID short of avoiding infections altogether. But you can substantially reduce your risk with vaccines and, likely, treatments.
The head of Northeastern University’s Observational Health Data Sciences and Informatics Center, Krisin Koska, said that while the NIH’s efforts show a shift in understanding Long COVID, the scale of the study does not match the public need.
“This is still a drop in the ocean compared to what’s necessary to systematically approach long COVID as a long-term, public health issue,” she told the university publication Northeastern Global News. “Long COVID is a mass disabling event. No doubt about it. Millions of previously healthy people are physiologically different post-COVID and suffering.”
The health news site STAT News reported that the NIH initiative, RECOVER, has also drawn criticism for not addressing a wider range of Long COVID symptoms, including what has been described as “delayed fatigue after exertion.”
“Nobody in the patient community or the research community thinks this is going to be sufficient to solve the problem,” said Charlie McCone, a patient representative on the initiative who has detailed his experience with Long COVID for other news outlets. “And there’s been no indication that there will be funding for further trials.”
For his part, Adams noted that while Paxlovid is approved for use against COVID-19, it has “known toxic drug-drug interactions with several other medications,” including several routinely prescribed to elderly and immunocompromised patients, which limits their treatment options. Unlike Jha, Adams also cited NIH data estimating that around 23 million Americans “may have symptoms of Long COVID.”
Jha’s op-ed was published a day before U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration announced the launch of a division of the federal Department Health and Human Services dedicated to the condition, and shortly before U.S. news outlets picked up reports of increases in hospitalizations around the country.
While the CDC does not track the amount of COVID-19 cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported more than 1 million new cases globally between July 3 and July 28 2023 but added that “reported cases do not accurately represent infection rates due to the reduction in testing and reporting globally.”
Not long after the publication of Jha’s op-ed, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service issued a notice that people with “ongoing symptoms” related to Long COVID will not be allowed to donate blood.
The WHO maintains a section on its website encouraging users to wear masks to protect against the disease, saying:
Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people. The appropriate use, storage and cleaning or disposal of masks are essential to make them as effective as possible.
By comparison, Jha only mentions masks once in his op-ed:
I have a friend with a recent organ transplant who continues to wear a high-quality mask in crowded indoor spaces. This makes sense. And when he got COVID last fall, treatments were essential in keeping him out of the hospital.
Jha did not respond to Adams’ piece specifically, but did post an online thread the day it was published recapping his original thoughts without mentioning masking or advancing internal ventilation efforts as possible mitigants against the disease.
On August 13 2023 Jha advised followers online not to “worry about every new variant” in response to a reported increase in COVID-19 case associated with the EG.5 variant. He wrote:
We will get new variants. They will cause increases in infections
The answer is the same
Keep up w vaccines
Get treated if infected
Use masks and tests if you wish
And don’t worry about every new variant
80% not up-to-date on vaccines – worse for black and brown communities.
Updated vaccine is not available for another month at least.
Marginalized communities can’t access treatment / tests/ N95s.
I just don’t understand the reason for such disregard for vulnerable.
“I prefer to address policies over people, but I just truly am baffled at a Dean of public health saying these things these ways,” Adams added.
We have previously reported that Jha also contradicted himself in a discussion with the Philadelphia Inquirer in December 2022, saying “if you’re wearing a high-quality mask it clearly makes a difference” and then falsely claiming that “no study in the world that shows that masks work that well.” Neither Jha nor the Inquirer responded to requests for comment on that flip-flop at the time.
Similarly, the Globe did not respond when we asked what the fact-checking process was like for Jha or Adams’ respective op-eds. Brown University has not responded to requests for comment.
Update 8/15/2023, 12:44 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect an online exchange between Adams and Jha regarding the EG.5 variant of COVID-19. — ag