How Ashish Jha and Rochelle Walensky of Newton, MA Protect Their Children from Covid (But not Yours)

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Newton[1], MA, settled in 1630, is today an affluent suburb of Boston with a poulation of ~87,000. Built on seven hills, Newton was one of America’s earliest commuter suburbs. The Boston and Worcester railroad reached it in 1830, and Bostonian businessmen built hilltop homes. “These early commuters needed sufficient wealth to employ a groom and keep horses, to drive them from their hilltop homes to the station.” Further suburbanization came with streetcars in the 1870s, and automobiles in the 1920s.

Newton[2] is the wealthiest town in Massachusetts (the second wealthiest state). Newton’s median household income is $154,398 (more than double the ~$70,784 for all Americans). Newton is 76% white. Of Newton’s total workforce of 45,494, 25,744 (56%) work for private companies, for non-profits (22%), and 3,892 (8%) for government. Only 1.6% of Newton residents have no health insurance (as opposed to 8% of all Americans). Newton has two symphony orchestras. The graduation rate from its public schools is 97%. 41.59% of Newton adults have graduate degrees. Newton voted 81.7% Democrat in 2020, up from 72% in 2000.

Newton, in other words, is quintessially PMC (Professional Managerial Class), hence quintessentially Democrat, hence quintessentially “Blue.” Interestingly, Newton residents play a key role in what the Boston Globe sunnily terms “the Newton-to-White House pipeline“:

In appointments roughly a year apart, President Biden enlisted [Newton residents Rochelle] Walensky and then [Ashish] Jha to help lead the nation’s fight against COVID-19 — Walensky as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention right at the start of his presidency, and Jha more recently to be White House coronavirus response coordinator.

Their ascension from spending their spare time assisting neighbors to occupying some of the highest posts in the federal public health response reflects a larger reality brought about by the two-year war against the pandemic. While Massachusetts has long sent its brightest political stars to Washington, the pandemic has created a new demand in the halls of power for the world-class medical expertise concentrated in the Greater Boston area.

Both Walensky and Jha — quintessially PMC — have children in the Newton Public School system. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, who coined the term “PMC,” write that “the PMC’s orignal dream was a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited intellectuals” (the phrase “our democracy,” emphasis “our,” encapsulates this idea). So here we have an interesting little natural experiment. Is there any contradiction between public roles that Walensky and Jha play as high administration officials, and the private roles they play as parents? Let’s look at the record.

Both Walensky and Jha, as highly credentialed medical professionals, consulted to Newton and the Newton Public Schools (NPS). From Newton’s Mayor Ruthanne Fuller[3]:

From day one, we paid attention to the science and were in constant contact with public health and infectious disease experts including NPS parents, Drs. Rochelle Walensky and Ashish Jha. We listened carefully and updated our guidelines as the understanding of the virus and its transmission evolved. Our school community was reassured when the Medical Advisory Committee [sic] was formally established.

Jha served on the Medical Advisory Group (MAG) for NPS (first meeting, August, 2, 2021; final recommendation February 15, 2022, all available on the NPS website). Jha is listed as an attendee in the minutes for only one meeting, on November 8, 2021. These minutes are terrible, not what one would have expected from a meeting with Newton’s demographic. Minutes (says Roberts Rules) are a record of what is done at a meeting, not what is said; my father impressed this lesson upon me. These minutes are a record of what was said. Nevertheless, some of the things said that were recorded are interesting:

Agree that we are going to be living with this risk and making choices around what risk we think is tolerable. Even though infections are mild in vaccinated individuals, there are more impacts (quarantine, contact tracing, etc.) Each positive case is a lot of work and so we have to consider that every case creates a lot of work and is impactful. We will get to the point where we are living with it and that is less impactful.

Here we have the ideology for both “living with Covid” and “personal risk assessment” adopted bubbling up as a group consensus in the heart of the PMC country, as early as November 8, 2021. (I do not know when that noxious phrase “personal risk assessment” first emerged, but alert reader John Zelnicker first used it on May 26, 2022, a reasonable indicator for when it had infested the zeitgeist, at least regarding Covid. If readers have earlier sightings, please add in comments.)

Given minutes like those taken at NPS, we cannot document personal responsibility for NPS Covid policy regarding anybody, let alone Jha and Walensky, even though Jha was a MAG member. However, given the enormous deference shown to both by NPS and Newton’s mayor, I think it’s fair to assume that any policy either disagreed with would not have been adopted. Anyhow, Jha put his name on the MAG recommendations. Here they are, from August 16, 2021:

Universal masking was, naturally, abandoned by the good folks at NPS after a decent interval[4], as indeed the ideology of “living with Covid” and “personal risk assessment” would suggest. However, I wish to draw your attention to the highlighted “ventilation.” I need not recapitulate for NC readers the importance of ventilation in fighting SARS-CoV0-2, an airborne disease. It seems that the city of Newton agrees, both with MAG and with NC readers. Ruthanne Fuller once more:

I invested $5 million in ventilation upgrades at every school. Under the direction of the City’s Public Buildings Department, the work was done incredibly fast. Newton is now the gold standard for other communities working to improve ventilation.

In fact, every Newton school has its own ventilation dashboard. A Google search for “corsi rosenthal box +newton massachusetts” returns no hits. I guess in Newton, MA, they don’t need them.

But wait. Plot twist. Please return to the MAG recommendations. You will see that not only is “ventilation” highlighted, but “should continue” is highlighted as well. So when did NPS’s $5 million investment begin? As it turns out, NPS decided to invest in ventilation on September 20th, 2020, far before the MAG committee made its recommendation. From the City of Newton Public Buildings Department on project completion, March 21, 2021:

The HVAC project seems to have been initiated from the bottom up, because of parent pressure, to which the Newton Buildings Department, the City Council, and the NPS responded. (You can be sure that if any public figures had been the drivers, we’d have seen their names). From the Boston Globe:

“Air quality has been something that has been raised by a whole bunch of folks for a number of months now,” Councilor Marc Laredo of Ward 7 said during the Zoom meeting. “Where in the school system is the responsibility for undertaking this work, and where did it fall down?

In order to ensure all classrooms’ HVAC units meet airflow standards, [Newton Commissioner of Public Buildings Josh Morse] said the city contacted 75 ventilation contractors throughout the Northeast and plans to finish testing and servicing classrooms within six to eight weeks.

“I am speaking as much to parents as I am to the council — I will move heaven and earth to get this done as fast as possible,” Morse said. “I assure you that not a second had gone by that I am not working on this since this past week.”

Quoting further from the City of Newton Public Buildings Department

Note the emphasis on “fresh air” as a metric[5].

* * *

So, after our plot twist, what have we learned?

(1) The City of Newton took what might be called a “whole of government” approach to rebuilding NPS HVAC systems. This was an enormous project, on which the city spend $5 million dollars. And it began in 2020.

(2) The ideology of “living with Covid” and “personal risk assessment” espoused by MAG in 2021 began and was adopted as common sense only in a context where ventilation had already been addressed. In MAG, #COVIDisAirborne is erased because ventilation is already a solved problem.

(3) Jha and Walensky, in their public roles, push only for “living with Covid” and “personal risk assessment”. They do not push for ventilation. They mention it, to be sure, but they have never advocated any program at the Federal level of the size and scale that they, in their private roles, must know was done in Newton, the school system where their children — but not yours — go. The school system where their children — but not yours — share air that’s fresh.


I must leave to a later date an explanation of how Jha and Walensky’s public and private roles are so grotesquely, indeed murderously, contradictory. But I will end on a more optimistic note.

Newton is the quintessential PMC town. Readers have mentioned that the phrase “PMC” tends to stereotype. A more sophisticated way of saying that is that “PMC” is a synecdoche: Part for whole. A certain subset of the PMC is taken, because of properties shared by that subset, as a proxy for the whole class. I had earlier urged a dichotomy — this is a binary, therefore wrong, but let’s roll with it for now –between the “hegemonic” and the “exceptional” members of the PMC, where the hegemonic PMC are the part taken for the whole. I think our little natural experiment has turned out to provide us, after the plot twist, with examples of both subclasses. Jha and Walensky are clearly hegemonic PMC, as shown by their high offices, the deference shown to them, their erasure of a life-saving paradigm, their invincible albeit credentialed stupidity, and so forth. The anonymous parents who forced the ventilation issue would be “exceptional,” in both senses[6], but most importantly because they had to force their way into the discourse and take control of it, as they did.

This is a more optimistic conclusion than I thought I would come to when I began, but I think there’s something to it. Even in wealthy Newton, people can follow the science of an airborne disease.


[1] I apologize to our Newton readership for this jeremiad, but it had to be said. This post was inspired by a comment from alert reader antidlc. When I did the research to answer it, I got really ticked off.

[2] Figures from or derived from the 2020 United States census.

[3] Here is local Newton Blog excoriating Mayor Fuller and Jha. The sourcing on Covid is pretty bad — nothing [we all blush modestly] like that found here at NC, sadly — which just shows how effective our famously free press and the platforms have been in shutting down, well, the science. This in a wealthy town where 41.59% of the adult population has a graduate degree!

[4] NPS Revised Health and Safety Plan – March 2022: “We will move to a mask-optional environment. NPS will emphasize personal choice and responsibility around masking. There will be many reasons for which students and staff continue to wear masks. There will be reasons students and staff decide not to wear a mask. All decisions will be supported.”

[5] I know that HVAC does not necessarily clear the air of SARS-CoV-2. But if fresh air is the metric, I think we can have some confidence that the City of Newton Public Buildings Department did the right thing.

[6] When I was struggling to work out this dichotomy, I had IM Doc, who is clearly exceptional (both senses) in mind as a test case. Note that the “exceptional” need not be a numerical minority.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


      1. Ignacio

        Don’t you think that the sound of “nada” gives a kind of absolute nothing like a real vacuum of sorts? I think this might be the reason this word in increasingly used by English speakers. Does anyone agree? IMO this could be a nice example on how languages can be enriched in real time by borrowing words here and there. Conversely, there are words in English that I use verbatim when writing/speaking in Spanish because I cannot find better equivalent in Spanish. Then there are all those untranslatable German words with very specific meanings…

        There is an existential novel in Spanish written by Carmen Laforet simply titled Nada on the post civil war vacuum in Spain. Very good novel with an excellent title.

          1. Ignacio

            No problemo! that sounds funny enough! Funniest a song that my son used to sing, from unknown origin to my knowledge, sayin’ “sin ninguno problemo, sin ninguno probleeeemo”

            1. ambrit

              As someone who “grew up” in Miami, where English and Spanish vie for supremacy, (not to mention Creole, but then there is Haitian Creole and there is Louisiana Creole, plus I am given it on reasonable authority that there is also a South American Creole,) I’ll put in a hearty “Claro que si!”

  1. drumlin woodchuckles

    PMC rebels? Rebel PMCs? This shows it is possible. If this can be highlighted loudly enough, in blog after blog after blog, over and over and over again, in other places where potentially rebellious or at least “rebelizable” PMC parents of school-attending children live; perhaps those PMC parents of school-attending children can force their governments to fully upgrade all relevant ventilation in all relevant buildings where their children congregate.

    And if enough such towns and cities are forced to upgrade their school building ventilation , and maybe other congregating-children buildings’ ventilation, up to anti-covid safety levels; then the growing number of these places can be trumpeted to as many non-PMC people as possible, who can then be led to ask . . . ” they have virus-safe schools for their kids, why don’t we?” And in this way force the safening of more and more schools, and then maybe other buildings as well, into existence in the teeth of establishment indifference or opposition.

    It also raises again the question of what to call this program of deliberate stealth mass murder. The term “eugenics” still means the targetting of “superior” gene-bearers versus “inferior” gene-bearers which generally means ethnic or racial. But Walensky is Jewish and Jha is subcontinental Indian. So it can’t be ethnic or racial. Since it seems to be class-based, perhaps we could call it Class Eugenics or Class War Eugenics or some other phrase of that meaning. Such a phrase would be more clunky than the word “eugenics” but would also be more overtly accurate in that it makes clear the eugenics being applied is class based rather than ethnicity or race based.

    1. lambert strether

      Potentially. But not necessarily actually. In terms of what might optimistically called mass action, the CR box builders are far ahead; that’s a national phenomenon, not limited to a single jurisdiction like Newton.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Different grouploads of people can try different approaches and see what works better over time.
        And in fact a groupload of people can even try two different things at the same time. Try forcing local and regional governments into forcing ventilation upgrades in buildings while also building CR boxes for indoor group-containment settings.

        And of course the CR boxbuilding project seems to be a mass cultural-diffusion-based effort, which means it can’t be stopped by assassinations ( “targeted killings”) because their are no charismatic CR boxbuilding movement leaders to target and assassinate.

        It could be a living demonstration model for other cultural-diffusion-based leaderless mass efforts in other areas which also can’t be stopped by targeted assassinations.

  2. Joe Well

    A bit of social psychology: a lot of people I’ve talked to from Newton and Newton-level Boston suburbs consider themselves middling middle class and resent the truly wealthy in Weston, Wellesley, etc. I have heard Weston used almost as a synecdoche for the multimillionaire class. I don’t tell them where I’m from so they dont have to worry about securing their valuables.

    1. Exiled_in_Boston

      Having lived in Newton for 42 years, I know there is still something of a class division between the sections of Newton on either side of Mass Pike. That is changing and that change is accelerating.

  3. Joe Well

    COVID guidance for Massachusetts schools:

    No masks

    Schools discouraged from testing except for symptomatic

    Individuals exposed to COVID should not be excluded from school, just asked to wear a “high quality mask”

    School days missed due to cancellation because of Covid must be made up in June.

    The wishful thinking is amazing. What are the odds of massive school cancellations in December?

  4. Godfree Roberts

    Wonderful work!! As enjoyable as it is instructive.

    The case of Jha and Walensky–who acted promptly and effectively within their sphere of influence, but could not do so in Washington–suggests that the official ‘Covid narrative’ was beyond their control.

    Straying from the narrative would have threatened their prominence, on an issue that cried out for unanimity.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      That’s a more charitable interpretation of their national-scale actions than I am willing to give them.

      ” Safety for me but not for thee”.

      This contrast between their ardent protection of their own children versus their implacable determination to put everyone else’s children on the Long Death March through the Valley of Selection should be highlighted as much as possible. Hopefully so effectively that their image is so destroyed that they can never work in any important place ever again. ( Putting them and their co-conspirators and directors on Nuremberg Trials would be even better).

  5. The Rev Kev

    Considering all the millions of dollars spent on ventilating those schools, that would imply that there must exist a document – or set of documents – that specify what work has to be done to bring those schools up to a safe standard for those kids. Not the building plans but a set of recommendations about what work has to be done with an extreme emphasis on helping stop the spread of a virus spread by aerosols. So here there is also no “personal risk assessment” being invoked but the schools being the ones to make these assessments and act on this with some urgency. Makes quite a contrast with some of the recommendations that they were making back in the day such as there-is-no-aerosol-spread and it is safe for college students to go back to school. Since it looks like it is all “living with the virus” and “personal risk assessment”, that the best that can be hoped for kids are wearing of masks and Corsi-Rosenthal boxes in each room.

    1. lambert strether

      An interesting follow-up post, to be sure. As residents, taxpayers, and respected advisors, Jha and Walensky would have had knowledge of the requirement and specifications

    2. Ignacio

      So far, ventilation in public spaces has been mainly forced to control CO2 to healthy levels (as well as air speed, and PM) and these are the standards regulated by most regulations I know about this. A step forward would be to conduct studies finding correlations of CO2 levels, PM and disease transmission and it might possibly have been done in environments like hospitals which typically have the more stringent ventilation rules and filters. If I have time and find something about it i will redirect to Lambert.

      The quality of outside air is an important determinant in these rules. At some point in an epidemic outside air could be a source of contagion if there aren’t suitable filters and ventilation demand is high.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, it is. School administrators and a political establishment listened to reason. We know how hard it is to get airborne transmission across. Yet here it was done. Of course, it helps to be rich.

  6. JBird4049

    To add to ideas of a checklist and waiting for the right opportunity: the USA PATRIOT Act ( Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001), 9/11, the Reichstag Fire, and Disaster Capitalism.

    The Patriot Act was already pre written and ready to be introduced. I also must say that the writers of that legislation had serious balls to create such a mendacious title for the act. But then was the home of Edward Bernays and P. T. Barnum

  7. BillC

    If Newton Public Schools’ ventilation upgrade work was put out for bid (maybe not, because emergency), the RFPs are probably public documents that include essential technical specifications and project management requirements. If so, it would be a great resource to publish a URL to their repository or, if not already on the Web, obtain copies and publish them here.

    (I know the rules: “no assignments.” But Lambert has already trawled these waters and probably knows them better than any of the rest of us except maybe Newton residents.)

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Am I wrong to regard this as a deliberate lie on her and CDC’s part to spread the virus as far and wide as possible deliberately and on purpose?

  8. Arizona Slim

    Quoting from the article: “Even though infections are mild in vaccinated individuals, there are more impacts…”

    To which say: I’m not seeing mild infections among the vaxxed people I know here in Tucson. To the contrary. These people are getting their butts kicked. Even worse, they’re having one heckuva time recovering from the illness.

    OTOH, among the people I know who haven’t taken the jab, they may be getting sick, but they seem to be bouncing back a lot faster.

    Other things I found missing from this article: Any mentions of diet, exercise, nutrition, getting out in the fresh air and sunshine, and the development of a positive mental outlook that includes being helpful toward others.

    All of these things can strengthen the mind, body, and community. When it comes to fighting disease, strength is what we need.

    1. Arizona Slim

      I, for one, do not have an unusual genetic makeup. What do I have? Well, I have a strong motivation to work on — and improve — my health and fitness.

      If that keeps me from getting sick-in-bed sick with COVID, good. I’ll keep right on doing it.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Me again. I’ve been snortin’ Xlear up my snoot. You know, to keep those sinuses fortified.

        Well, Xlear appears to agree with me and that’s good. I’ve already written about my snoot’s falling out with ImmuneMist, so no more of that stuff!

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