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Biden-Harris COVID-19 advisory board should be met with cautious optimism

Biden-Harris COVID-19 advisory board should be met with cautious optimism
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I intently studied the names of the Biden-Harris COVID-19 advisory board, and it was hard not to be impressed: a former FDA head and Surgeon General, infectious disease specialists, ethicists, epidemiologists, and a front-line ICU physician. Good, I thought, I can exhale.

But what should be the public’s expectation of these 13 highly qualified men and women — nine of whom parenthetically are members of underrepresented minorities, a group hit especially hard by the pandemic?

The answer: cautious optimism. Like many of my fellow Americans — Republican and Democrat— I am looking for hope concerning the fight against the coronavirus. With over 10 million documented infections since the pandemic began, 242,000 (and counting) deaths, and rising hospitalizations in many parts of the country, we need something about which to be hopeful.

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But what can these exceptional people recommend to President-elect Biden that will truly have an impact? Wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands, get an influenza vaccine. And wait for a COVID-19 vaccine, the development of which has already been set into motion (whether part of Operation Warp Speed or in the case of Pfizer who recently announced favorable results of their vaccine candidate trial, not). In other words, do what the Trump administration has been recommending or supporting, even if President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE himself was not following his administration’s own recommendations. 

But the differences with the Biden approach may be more subtle, having more to do with the messaging of measures that we know to be effective, including the likelihood that President Biden himself will not disparage, disagree with, and openly question the motives of his scientific advisors. As President-elect Biden said in his announcement of the Advisory Board, “Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts.” I bet Drs. Birx and Fauci wish they would have had such a clear indication of support from the White House. 

But will statements of this kind and the formation of Biden’s Advisory Board have a tangible difference in protecting us from the ravages of the virus? Perhaps, because it will send a signal to large segments of the population that these experts can be — should be — believed and that not every shred of a scientific recommendation is either politically motivated or “fake news.” That will be a change. One of the main benefits of being president – besides Air Force One and excellent public housing — is the bully pulpit he enjoys. When President-elect Biden becomes President Biden in January, he can clearly communicate the scientific principles upon which his COVID policy will be based. That will matter, especially to a nation that has been routinely receiving messages that are confusing, contradictory, and at times, outright fabrications.

Another important point is the behavior that President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will model with their own behavior. If they wear a mask, don’t hold large inside events in the White House, and — I don’t think this is a reach — don’t hold large political rallies, then again we will see a message being sent from the top that this is the way to behave in the current times, that this is how adults act when a pandemic is raging.

President-elect Biden also said in his statement announcing the COVID-19 Advisory Board that “ongoing racial and ethnic disparities” need to be addressed. This is important especially given that in a Pew Research Center analysis in September, only 32 percent of Black Americans said they would definitely get a COVID-19 vaccine if one were available, compared with 52 percent of white respondents, 54 percent of Hispanic-Americans, and 72 percent of Asian-Americans.

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What does this mean? The message is clear: despite the physical, emotional, and financial toll the pandemic has had on our population, especially people of color, the response of too many to a vaccine — the one thing that could stop the virus in its tracks — is, no thanks. 

Which brings me back to the expectations we should have of the Biden approach generally and the new task force specifically. The time to act to have the most impact was earlier this year before the virus spread so rapidly before the proverbial horse was out of the barn. That opportunity was lost, millions have suffered as a result and hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, with an additional thousand dying per day. Among other reasons, but perhaps none as important, a president has lost his job over this botched response. We can’t do anything about the past mistakes except go to learn from what went wrong about how we can do better when a new pathogen arises, threatening us in a similar, or worse, way. 

But what we must do now is try to regain trust — in our political leaders, in our new task force, in our health care institutions charged with protecting us. It is the glue that holds the health care system together — lack of trust can render it ineffective. Restoring trust can begin with doing the right thing as vaccine candidates are developed, tested, approved, and go out to the public. The level of trust is clearly not there right now to effectively fight this scourge. But it can be regained — it must be regained — if we are to win our fight against the virus. Naming an impeccable group of individuals to advise our new administration is a step in the right direction, as is the confidence that the new president will listen to their advice. After all, winning this battle is achievable. It’s a matter of trust.

David Weill M.D., is the Weill Consulting Group principal and the author of the forthcoming memoir “Exhale: Hope, Healing and a Life in Transplant.”