President-elect Joe Biden gave clear signals on Monday that his administration will take a completely different approach to the coronavirus pandemic — warning that the United States would face a "very dark winter," unveiling a new Covid advisory group stacked with veteran public health experts, lowering expectations for a rapidly available vaccine and making an urgent plea for Americans to cover their faces and slow the soaring rate of infection.
Flanked by a masked Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Wilmington, Del., Biden made early reference to the "positive news" that drugmaker Pfizer had found its vaccine candidate to be more than 90 percent effective. But he said the shot, if approved, "will not be widely available for many months yet to come." In fact, Pfizer announced Monday that the company is aiming to have just 100 million doses ready to distribute in the U.S. by March — enough for only 15 percent of the population since each recipient requires two doses a few weeks apart.
With U.S. Covid-19 cases about to climb above 10 million and hospitalizations set to reach a record high, Biden took a sober tone, citing projections of a “dark winter” ahead and stressing that if the public does nothing but wait for the vaccine, hundreds of thousands of lives could be lost before the shots become widely available.
The 10-minute speech offered the best glimpse yet at how Biden will guide the country through a health crisis that’s likely to peak as he prepares to assume office. He struck a tone resembling that of a wartime president, speaking of the pandemic’s threat in dire terms and setting public expectations for a drawn-out, monthslong campaign to crush the outbreak in the U.S.
Americans living through the pandemic are now “called to do the same thing that generations of proud Americans have done in the face of a crisis throughout our history,” Biden said. “Rise above our differences to defend the strength and vitality of our nation.”
Breaking from President Donald Trump’s framing of public health measures as a threat to a still-limping economy, Biden also described mask-wearing, social distancing and contact tracing as the tools needed to reopen businesses and get the economy moving again.
Masks are the “most potent weapon against the virus,” he said, and the goal of wearing one “is not to make your life less comfortable or to take something away from you. It’s to give something back to all of us: A normal life.”
An overwhelming majority of the public is behind Biden on mask-wearing and other public health measures. In a Harris-Harvard poll released on Sunday, 80 percent of respondents said they support a national mask mandate, and 65 percent said they were more worried about the country opening up too soon than staying closed too long.
Still, many GOP officials and much of the public is staunchly opposed, and are likely to resist, Biden’s calls to mandate masks even as cases climb. Republican groups have begun circulating opposition research about the members of Biden’s new coronavirus task force, pointing to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s past advocacy for gun control and bioethicist Dr. Zeke Emanuel’s calls early in the pandemic for the U.S. to take measures as aggressive as the Chinese government to suppress the virus.
An advisory group including veteran public health experts and well-respected former government officials will advise him on how to tackle the pandemic once he takes office. Group members’ specific expertise signal what they’ll be working on in the weeks ahead, from racial disparities and health equity to global health to conditions for frontline medical workers. And unlike the White house coronavirus task force — which includes political and economic aides in addition to medical experts, and whose most prominent voices advocate for a full reopening despite the virus’ severity — the Biden team uniformly supports more stringent public health measures.
Biden said Monday the group will develop plans for "making rapid testing widely available, and [build] a corps of contact tracers who will track and curb this disease while we prioritize getting vaccinations first to the most at-risk populations" as well as "clear and detailed guidance and providing the necessary resources for small businesses, schools and child-care centers to reopen and operate safely and effectively."
Because the General Services Administration has yet to certify Biden the winner of the election, his team can’t begin working with federal agencies on the transition, including the implementation for a new approach to the pandemic.
So as the pandemic rapidly worsens, Biden can do little but make public appeals for the public to take necessary precautions to slow the spread of the virus.
But career health care officials currently in government say Biden can still make a difference by publicly laying out his health plans and signaling the new direction the agencies will take next year.
“Things can start happening before Jan. 20,” said one health official not authorized to speak publicly. “The non-political people at CDC, NIH, FEMA, HHS and other agencies can start doing things in anticipation of what’s coming. They can start thinking, for example, if Biden is going to bring on 100,000 people to do contact tracing in the first quarter of next year, how they can thire and manage them and what they might be doing, even if they can’t yet push the button on it.”
He added that because Biden has publicly declared his intention to rejoin the World Health Organization, career officials will know not to start winding down their work with the global body.
Former Kansas Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius added that Biden’s blunt communication about the severity of the virus and early outreach efforts can help both the general public and local officials make informed choices going into the pandemic’s more dangerous months.
“There’s no question that people can deal with information, good or bad, and make their own decisions if they get the facts, but they aren’t getting clear information right now,” she said. “States also need to know what resources they can rely on — that’s the way a disaster recovery should work.”
For the next 11 weeks, however, the Trump administration’s patchwork pandemic strategy will remain in place. That was evident Monday morning as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence touted the news that Pfizer had a promising vaccine candidate and promised on Twitter that it will be coming “soon,” but said nothing about the surge in cases threatening to overwhelm hospitals in several regions or how they plan to suppress the virus before the vaccine is widely available — most likely well into next year.
And instead of working together on a smooth transfer of power, the White House’s coronavirus task force and Biden’s new advisory board will be blocked from communicating by the General Services Administration, which has to officially declare Biden the President-Elect.
Some Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups have even accused the GSA of dragging its feet in order to “sabotage” Biden’s plan to slow the spread of the virus.
"With cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all skyrocketing, the decision to once again put politics ahead of public health will cost American lives,” said Zac Petkanas with the health advocacy group Protect Our Care.
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