White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 25, 2022.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 25, 2022. Reuters / LEAH MILLIS

White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients will leave his post next month and will be replaced by public health expert Dr. Ashish Jha, U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday, as the administration prepares for new variants that could hit the country.

Jha, an internist who leads the Brown University School of Public Health and is a television commentator, takes on the new role as the United States shifts to a new phase of the pandemic two years after the novel coronavirus upended the nation.

"Americans are safely moving back to more normal routines, using the effective new tools we have to enable us to reduce severe COVID cases and make workplaces and schools safer," Biden said in a statement. "But our work in combating COVID is far from done."

Jha is the "perfect person" to fight COVID "as we enter a new moment in the pandemic," he added.

Zients, a former economic adviser in the Obama administration, is credited with overseeing and implementing Biden's effort to get Americans inoculated against COVID-19 after coming into office in 2021 when vaccine distribution was low. Fewer than 2 million people were vaccinated at the time, the White House said, while now more than 215 million Americans are fully vaccinated and 2 out of 3 eligible adults have received booster shots.

But his tenure was also marred by criticism from experts that the White House did not do enough early on to boost testing capacity and other measures to fight the pandemic beyond vaccines. Deaths in the United States have continued to rise. More than 950,000 people have died from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When Biden took over from former President Donald Trump, roughly 400,000 people had perished.

Zients' deputy, Natalie Quillian, will also depart in April.

"The two leave behind an infrastructure that is ready to continue delivering high-quality protection and respond to future variants if needed," a White House official said.

"Jeff spent the last 14 months working tirelessly to help combat COVID. He is a man of service and an expert manager. I will miss his counsel and I'm grateful for his service," Biden said.

New U.S. COVID-19 cases have fallen to a seven-day average of 35,412 following a peak in January during the latest wave from the Omicron variant. Deaths and hospitalizations have also fallen, and all 50 U.S. states have lifted pandemic-related restrictions such as mask wearing as officials tout vaccines.

Still, some public health officials warn the U.S. could see another spike in cases as the virus continues to evolve and have urged caution, particularly as Europe and China see rising cases.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is still pushing for another tranche of federal funding to bolster the country's pandemic preparedness.

The White House had sought $22.5 billion. Congress countered with about $15 billion, but it was ultimately stripped from the larger government funding bill signed into law this week, with lawmakers saying they would take up the issue separately.