President-elect Joe Biden’s victory signals a turning point in the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, as he promises a newly aggressive federal effort to contain a virus that is spiking nationwide in contrast to a president who has consistently downplayed the outbreak’s dangers and promised it would disappear.
But while the president-elect can begin to lay the groundwork for a more muscular approach and a vastly different messaging campaign than President Donald Trump, Biden will have to wait until he is officially inaugurated on Jan. 20 to put any of those plans into place.
Still, Biden’s transition team has been working for months on how to coordinate federal agencies to execute the plans Biden outlined months ago. The proposals include a national mask mandate — although Biden has acknowledged that would be difficult to enforce except on federal property.
“I will bring together Republicans and Democrats to deliver economic relief to working families, schools, and businesses,” Biden said in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Oct. 30. “As I’ve said before, I’m not going to shut down the economy. I’m going to shut down the virus.”
Biden released a plan to combat the coronavirus that says its aim is to restore trust, create a cohesive national strategy, make treatments affordable, provide economic relief to those impacted by the virus and work with other countries to combat the spread.
Biden said he would restore the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which the Trump administration had folded into another office at the NSC.
He also plans to provide a daily public White House report on how many tests have been conducted, expand surveillance programs by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, instruct federal agencies to take action to expand America’s hospital capacity and expand tele-health capabilities across the country.
The plan also says federal health agencies will collaborate on vaccine development, establish a public health corps to assist with testing and contract tracing, and fully fund and expand authority for the National Disaster Medical System to reimburse providers for Covid-19 treatment costs that are not directly covered by health insurance.
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The coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed more than 230,000 people in the U.S., is likely to intensify in the cold months between the election and inauguration so Biden’s administration will have to be ready to address a fluid situation immediately. So while he cannot yet act, Biden and his team will spend the next several weeks gathering information about the Trump administration’s response and ensuring they are ready to implement Biden’s plans after he takes the oath of office.
“A lot is going to depend on how we’re doing,” Ezekiel Emanuel, a former top health adviser to the Obama administration, said in an interview before Election Day. “Most of us, the physicians, public-health community fear that we’re going to have outbreaks in large numbers because of people going inside” as the weather cools.
Biden has been urging Americans to heed the advice of scientists and public health experts since the onset of the pandemic in March, and advisers said he made a strategic decision early on to model his presidential campaign in line with his beliefs about how a president should behave in a crisis. He spent most of the early months of the pandemic campaigning from his basement in Wilmington, and once he resumed in-person events, he strictly followed so3cial distancing and masking guidelines.
“We are going to beat this virus. We are going to get it under control,” Biden said last week in Flint, Michigan. “And the first step to beating it is to beat Donald Trump.”
Now that he has beat Trump, Biden advisers say he will bring that approach to the White House. But after months of criticizing the president, the Biden will face the complex challenge of bringing a divided country together to fight the virus.
“They’ve got to build a coalition of churches, of nonprofits, of the business community, to reinforce the mask message,” said Florida Representative Donna Shalala, who ran the Department of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton.
Shalala, in an interview before she lost her re-election bid this week, also said Biden should work to restore confidence and trust in federal scientists and civil servants.
“I think he should go up to NIH on his first day, and he should go down to CDC, and liberate them,” she said. “I think that symbolism is really important.”
Ultimately, though, one of the Biden administration’s most important and complicated tasks will be figuring out how to get eventual coronavirus vaccines to the public. Advisers started developing plans to distribute a vaccine even before the election, and for months they have been monitoring the Trump administration’s effort to deliver a drug for signs of political interference, according to two Biden advisers.
In particular, Biden’s health team, many of whom worked in the administration of President Barack Obama, have been leveraging their decades-long relationships with U.S. government officials to keep tabs on Trump’s initiative to deliver a vaccine in record time. Now, the team will get much more information about the progress that has been made.
The advisers involved in the effort include some of the officials who oversaw pandemics and preparedness in the Obama administration. Among them are Nicole Lurie, the former assistant secretary for preparedness and response under Obama; Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. surgeon general and David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
The incoming administration must also anticipate logistical challenges like ensuring adequate supply of glass vials and syringes, for example, and prepare to address them immediately.
“Where are the bottlenecks that will need to be addressed come January 20?” Emanuel said, outlining the areas the transition team will focus on in the coming weeks.
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