Biden’s COVID-19 crisis team takes shape as virus rages

President-elect Joe Biden will find himself facing an immediate public health crisis when he takes office in January, putting pressure on his health team now to hit the ground running.

The pandemic is expected to be raging this winter, as cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in the fall months with no sign of slowing as the weather gets colder.

Biden has been receiving briefings for months from health experts, led by Vivek Murthy, surgeon general during the Obama administration, and David Kessler, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner. Other experts who have briefed Biden include Celine Gounder of New York University and Yale’s Marcella Nunez-Smith.

Those experts are expected to continue advising during the transition, and Biden said Saturday evening that he will soon announce his COVID-19 task force.

“On Monday, I will name a group of leading scientists and experts as transition advisers to help take the Biden-Harris COVID plan and convert it into an action blueprint that will start on Jan. 20, 2021,” Biden said in his first speech as president-elect on Saturday night. “That plan will be built on bedrock science.”

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told The Hill on Friday she expects Biden’s task force could start holding public briefings between now and Inauguration Day.

“I think that’s quite likely that would occur right away,” she said, noting it would provide more information to Americans and let them see who his advisers are. “Who is he listening to? What do they say?”

Clear and consistent communication from the government on what precautions people should take is key, experts said. Biden has emphasized he will “listen to the scientists,” a sharp contrast from President Trump’s attacks on public health officials such as Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force.

“I’ve got a better idea: Let’s fire Trump, and I’ll hire Fauci,” Biden said the day before the election after Trump threatened to fire the nation’s top infectious diseases expert.

“Even if I win, it’s going to take a lot of hard work to end this pandemic,” Biden said following a briefing from his health advisers in late October. “I’m not running on the false promise of being able to end this pandemic by flipping a switch, but what I can promise you is this: We will start on day one doing the right things. We’ll let science drive our decisions. We will deal honestly with the American people, and we’ll never ever, ever quit.”

During the transition, Sebelius said, Biden’s team can start to plan and gather information such as taking inventory of where health care personnel and equipment shortages are likely to occur as hospitals become overwhelmed so that he can “implement things very quickly once in office.”

Biden has called for the federal government to take a much more forceful role in ramping up testing supplies, including rapid tests, as well as protective equipment for health workers, in contrast to the Trump administration shifting much of that responsibility to the states, which sometimes had to compete with each other for supplies.

He is also calling for “evidence-based national guidance” on when businesses such as bars and gyms should open or close depending on the level of local transmission.

“I think the overriding theme here is that he understands the critical importance of a one government approach to address health emergencies,” said Howard Koh, a former assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration who’s now at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We’ve had a 50-state approach until now, with 50 states going in 50 different directions, and it’s added to the inefficient and often ineffective response that we’ve witnessed so far,” Koh said.

Fauci is by far the most high-profile public health official, and a Biden administration would likely seek more of his input in tackling the coronavirus.

Fauci has had the same job, as head of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) infectious diseases branch, since 1984.

Lawrence Gostin, a health expert at Georgetown University and a longtime friend of Fauci, said Fauci has not expressed any interest in higher positions such as NIH director.

“I think it’s been more than one discussion of him having the NIH director job,” Gostin said. “But I know that he told me repeatedly that he’s not looking for something like that, and the reason was that he saw himself as wanting to work at the top of infectious diseases in America his whole career, and by taking a political appointment, he’d have to give up the directorship of the institute that he runs now.”

Gostin added that given how Fauci has had a “profoundly bad experience under the Trump administration,” he thinks it is “very possible” Fauci could take a more senior position as a political appointee.

One of the most daunting logistical challenges facing Biden will be distributing a vaccine to hundreds of millions of Americans. It is not fully certain when a vaccine will be ready, but January very well could be at the start of a massive vaccination campaign.

The Trump administration has already started planning for this effort, and states have submitted vaccination plans to the administration, which Sebelius said she expects Biden’s team will ask for as well.

The level of cooperation from the Trump administration in the transition is not yet clear given that Trump is pursuing multiple legal challenges to the election.

One of the most important steps Biden could take, Koh said, is simply setting an example to the country by wearing a mask in public.

“That alone would be a major step forward for the country,” he said.

Nathaniel Weixel contributed.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Kathleen Sebelius NIH Pandemic Vivek Murthy
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