Was Jeff Zients a Successful White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator?

Anthony LaMesa
7 min readJan 30

On vaccines, testing, and travel, Zients made some big mistakes.

President Biden has tapped management consultant and multi-millionaire Jeff Zients as his next chief of staff. According to CNN, “Biden was impressed with his job as the coronavirus response coordinator” and that played a major role in his selection. Praise for Zients’ work in that role is confusing, though, because his tenure was marked by multiple failures. These failures — on vaccines, testing, and travel restrictions — led to increased mortality, complicated reopening schools, and damaged America’s relationships with its closest allies. I struggle to understand why Biden was pleased by his performance and want to unpack his record in this post.

On vaccines, Zients was perhaps the luckiest man in the world when he took charge of the United States’ Covid response in January 2021. No other country had more access to vaccines and Democratic pundits were even chauvinistically gloating about this as Europe, Canada, and Latin America struggled to start vaccinating their populations.

COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per 100 people from December 4, 2020 to April 30, 2021 Source: Our World in Data

Zients got off to a bad start by embracing hoarding and forcing Mexico to turn to Vladimir Putin for vaccines. This, despite the AstraZeneca vaccine not being approved for domestic use. Eventually, the U.S. “loaned” AstraZeneca doses to Canada and Mexico, though with accusations of a quid pro quo agreement requiring Mexico to expel more Central American migrants in exchange for the doses.

By spring 2021, there was so much supply that any U.S. adult could get vaccinated practically anywhere on-demand and it looked as if the U.S. might emerge from the pandemic as a vaccination champion, but unfortunately this didn’t translate to high uptake among the elderly, those Americans most likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid. On August 24, 2021, the New York Times published a data-driven piece noting that the Delta wave was more deadly in the United States than Britain, because of…

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