President-elect Joe Biden has set up a 13-member coronavirus advisory board will play a high-profile role in helping the Biden-Harris administration contain the coronavirus pandemic in the US as it enters its deadliest phase so far.
“Failure is not an option here,” Dr Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and a member of the advisory board, told the Guardian. “We have to do whatever we can to reduce the impact of the virus on our society.”
The high-powered board, which includes a former US surgeon general, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, leading virologists and experts in bio-defense and the health of marginalized populations, is an about-face from the Trump administration.
Trump routinely muzzled scientists, pushed misinformation, sought to change scientific guidance for political purposes and shunted much of the Covid-19 response to states.
“The work has been going on for months,” said Dr Celine Gounder, a clinical assistant professor of infectious diseases at NYU Langone Health’s department of medicine, and a member of the advisory board. “The role of the advisory board is sort of bigger picture, to have a second set of eyes on these plans to provide feedback and to be thinking big ideas.”
The coming weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic will be among the most challenging, as the US shatters records for new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, with deaths sure to follow, and economic fallout likely.
The disease has killed 242,000 people and is claiming more than 1,000 lives a day. The rate of Americans hospitalized has more than doubled over two weeks, and the coming holidays threaten to make the pandemic exponentially worse.
“It’s important to understand virtually the entire US is becoming a hotspot, which means nothing really is a hotspot any more – everything is,” said Osterholm.
The Biden campaign laid out a multi-pronged plan for dealing with the virus, including:
- shared guidance on reopening from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
- an enormous expansion of testing and production of protective equipment;
- an expansion of health insurance benefits;
- a multi-pronged, logistically challenging, vaccination campaign to provide free shots;
- hiring 100,000 new public health workers;
- and lobbying for coronavirus economic relief.
The scientists and researchers tapped by the Biden-Harris administration will work with that blueprint, as well as look broadly at how to address public trust, rampant viral spread, vaccine distribution and even novel solutions such as screening entire towns for Covid-19, according to Gounder.
“Really scaling up testing is a big priority, because you can’t really understand how the virus is spreading if you don’t have that kind of data,” said Gounder. Importantly, there is disagreement on the board – not everyone agrees on how to approach the pandemic response, and this is by design.
President-elect Joe Biden has made a stark departure from the strategy of his predecessor, and assembled a group of 13 of the nation’s foremost scientists to lead a federal response to the pandemic.
The group’s very appointment is a stark departure from Trump’s administration, which has still refused to concede or aid in a transition. Biden has also signaled he would turn much of the federal government to face the Covid-19 challenge. He announced a 52-member Covid-19 transition team to coordinate across federal agencies.
Trump’s intransigence has consequences – the most ambitious plans of this group will probably have to wait until 20 January when Biden takes office. Still, as a nationwide surge of infections grips the country, the group can address perhaps its most important challenge – getting buy-in from the American people.
“[Biden’s] single biggest challenge is going to be re-establishing trust,” said Dr Leana Wen, an emergency doctor and public health professor at George Washington University, who is not involved in the advisory board. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. “We won’t be able to stop the surges and infections if half of the country does not follow his guidance.”
Overwhelmingly, those who rated the economy as their top issue voted for the now outgoing President Trump. But those people must be brought on board to participate in public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing to stem the tide of infection.
“If I could change one thing right now, I wish everyone in this country could spend just one hour in an intensive care unit,” said Osterholm, as a way to convince the American public of the severity of the disease. “That’s been one of the challenges – is the fact that people still think this is not real.”