New White House Covid projection baffles experts and surprises some Biden officials

This warning from Dr. Ashish Jha, who said the projection was based on a range of internal and external models, rattled some public health experts and even surprised some senior Biden administration officials, sources telling CNN that the grim forecast – and details of exactly where that 100 million figure came from – were not discussed with some key officials intimately involved with the administration’s work to combat Covid until Jha’s TV interview this week-end.

As of Thursday morning, the White House had yet to release the underlying data it says supports its projection. A senior administration official had told CNN on Monday that the 100 million number of infections is a moderate number that falls somewhere in the middle of more conservative and extreme projections and is based on an underlying assumption that no additional resource or additional mitigation action is taken, including new Covid-19 funding from Congress, or new dramatic variants.

The timing of Jha’s announcement – as the White House tries to pressure Congress to approve billions of dollars in new Covid funding – has also raised concerns among experts about whether political considerations were a determining factor in making the public screening.

Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert and former Biden health adviser, told CNN he was concerned Jha had released specific models that were used to project 100 million potential infections later this year. , saying, “I don’t think Ashish provided us with any supporting data.”

Osterholm took issue with the Biden administration making a Covid projection that covers the fall and winter, saying there are currently too many unknowns — including the possible development of new Covid variants — that could alter dramatically the trajectory of the pandemic in the months to come. come.

“The idea that you’re modeling in six months? That’s pixie dust. Six months ago we didn’t have Omicron,” Osterholm said, adding that he feared the public warning would was too motivated by the desire to lobby publicly. Congress will approve the extra Covid money.
The White House Covid team has reached out to modellers and experts over the past few weeks, collecting what a senior administration official described as “preliminary” and “early” data that ultimately led to the warning from Jha. The official predicted that many of these models that anticipate fall and winter were likely still weeks away from being finalized and shared with the public, and could still change.

The official also pointed out to CNN that these efforts — along with Jha’s warning of 100 million new infections — were “less about trying to predict” what might happen later this year. Instead, they were part of the administration’s “scenario planning” if the country lacked the resources to launch an aggressive vaccination campaign and ran out of Covid testing and treatment by the fall, the manager said.

Other health experts say a wave that causes 100 million new infections is possible, but it’s one of many scenarios to consider.

“It’s an outcome that we should think about and prepare for. Does that mean it’s absolutely going to happen? No,” Nick Reich, a University of Massachusetts biostatistician and Covid-19 lead, told CNN. Scenario Modeling Hub.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that Covid keeps throwing curveballs at us. We have to learn to expect the unexpected.”

This unpredictability led Reich and other modelers to reduce case projections, instead focusing on more severe outcome measures.

“We’ve spent the last two years looking at these predictions very carefully, and one of the things we’ve found is that cases in general tend to be the hardest thing to do to make accurate predictions,” said said Reich.

He and other scientists at the Covid-19 Scenario Modeling Hub collaborated with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to model Covid trends and interpret these projections, which ultimately led the CDC to abandon the projections of case of its weekly forecast reports due to “poor reliability”. .”

The CDC referred CNN to the White House when asked about Jha’s latest projection for 100 million new infections and did not respond to follow-up email questions.

Dr. Celine Gounder, another infectious disease expert and former administration health adviser, said her ongoing conversations with Biden officials made it clear that approving additional Covid funding is currently an issue. major concern of the White House: “It all flows from that,” Gounder said. .

Regarding Jha’s projection, Gounder added, “It would be helpful whenever you have more transparency. It’s helpful for people to understand what happened in that projection and where it came from.”

When asked on Monday if the White House could release the models the administration has been looking at, press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I’m happy to see if there’s any more specific data that we But what I can assure you is that Dr Jha is a very experienced public health expert He speaks to a range of internal and external officials And that is what he is talking about. base.”

Without additional funding to fight Covid, Biden administration officials have said the country could backtrack on everything from producing updated vaccines to advancing Covid testing and treatment.

Jha is a newcomer to the Biden administration, replacing former White House Covid response coordinator Jeff Zients last month. The epidemiologist and former dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health had been a familiar face on cable television, including CNN, throughout the Covid pandemic before taking on the government role.

Jha has met with lawmakers to seek approval for additional funding, according to a senior administration official, as Congress remains stuck on how to proceed with Biden’s $22.5 billion request. A complicating factor has been a disagreement over Title 42 immigration policy — a pandemic-era rule allowing border officials to send migrants back to their home countries citing a public health emergency.

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