Jonathan Warsh
Jonathan Warsh

Jonathan Warsh is responsible for the state’s contact tracing program.

His career was taking off like a rocket. So why, with a string of degrees from top universities and a high-paying job with a prominent consulting firm, would he take a sharp turn for a job with Michigan’s state government?

For Jonathan Warsh it was about wanting to return to the community where he was born and raised, and a desire to work for the public good. In February 2019, he started his current job as chief of staff for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Among other responsibilities, he oversees the state’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Warsh, 30, grew up in Bloomfield Hills, the son of attorney Rick Warsh and his wife, Debbie, a psychotherapist. He graduated from Hillel Day School and Birmingham Groves High School, and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Ahm, where his family is still active.

With a summa cum laude bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 2011, he was awarded a prestigious Marshall Scholarship to study in Britain, earning a master’s in health care policy from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. in bioethics from Oxford University. Following a short stint on the faculty of Harvard’s Business School, he moved to Washington, D.C., and a position at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm.

He enjoyed his work but not the Washington political environment. After Gretchen Whitmer’s 2018 election, he was asked to consider a job with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“I had it in the back of my mind to move back to Michigan sometime, but I didn’t expect it would be so soon,” Warsh said.

As one of the leaders of his department, Warsh helped develop strategies for dealing with maternal and infant health, public assistance and Medicaid. A few weeks after the plan was finalized, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state. “Everything was completely upended,” he said.

His boss, HHS Director Robert Gordon, said Warsh has played a key role in the state’s COVID-19 response. “His listening, analysis and leadership skills are unusual for someone of any age. We’re fortunate to have him on the team.”

Warsh is responsible for the state’s contact tracing program. Everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is asked to name people with whom they had recent physical interaction. A trained volunteer calls the contacts and urges them to be tested and to quarantine for two weeks if they are positive.

“It’s very challenging and we’re trying to scale up rapidly,” Warsh said. One problem is that many don’t accept the calls, which come from (866) 806-3447, MI COVID HELP.

Contract tracers do not share the name of the person who tested positive. Neither do they request personal identification such as a Social Security number, driver’s license number or credit card number. Calls that request such information are probably scams.

“When we call you, please pick up and talk to us, and give us the names of your close contacts,” Warsh said. “If we don’t do this well, it will be virtually impossible to contain the virus.

“As the weather has gotten better and people are coming out of quarantine, it’s natural to expect more close interactions that are facilitating the spread of the disease,” he said. “What we really need is for people to continue to practice safe social distancing, wear masks when indoors (and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible) and limit social interactions as much as possible. This is really Public Health 101.”

Huntington Woods attorney Jeff Appel, a family friend who has known Warsh since he was born, is one of his biggest fans. “He probably won’t tell you that while at McKinsey he helped redesign the Medicare system for the state of Ohio,” Appel said. “He probably won’t tell you that he routinely works 12-hour days.”

Warsh, who is single, lives in Ann Arbor, where he is on the board of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan.

He might be interested in a federal government position someday, he said, but working for the state makes him more nimble and closer to the people he wants to serve. He has no interest in political office. “I don’t enjoy the limelight,” he said. “I enjoy working behind the scenes.”

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