Biden plans for Covid task force during transition

With President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force sidelined, Joe Biden is planning to create his own task force to help grapple with the country’s surge in cases should he win tonight’s election, according to plans obtained by POLITICO.

The task force would include former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University’s Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale’s Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita, who is now an executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In line with Biden’s repeated campaign pledges to “listen to the scientists” if elected, the team features well-respected, veteran public health experts, some of whom ran agencies under the Obama and Clinton administrations.

The team is expected to advise transition officials on managing the latest spike of Covid-19 cases, ensuring vaccines are safe, and protecting at risk populations, according to an official close to the Biden team with knowledge of the plans, which are still evolving

Many of the members have already been working with the Biden campaign and transition for months. Starting in the pandemic’s earliest days, Murthy and Kessler have led briefings for Biden as often as four times a week, pulling in other former officials and experts in public health, infectious diseases and epidemiology to update the former vice president on the virus’s spread and the ongoing development of a vaccine. Biden’s campaign has featured these briefings in its closing advertisements as part of his argument that he is better prepared than Trump to confront Covid-19.

Biden’s plan for a new task force comes as the pandemic worsens across most of the country, pushing many hospitals to the breaking point and erasing the hard-won progress of the spring and summer’s lockdowns. As of Election Day, the virus has killed more than 230,000 people in the U.S. and infected more than 9 million — and both figures are expected to climb significantly by the time Biden is sworn into office.

Emanuel, a longtime Biden adviser who chairs the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told POLITICO in October that the Biden team also plans to set up “sub-groups of officials work on testing, vaccine distribution, therapeutics, guidance for schools to open, and coordination with the states, so everyone is singing from the same hymnal” if Biden wins. Reviving a demoralized CDC and thinking through the logistics of distributing a future vaccine including how to convince a skeptical and hesitant public to line up for the shots — will be priorities once Biden takes office, he said. Emanuel did not respond Tuesday to specific questions about the task force, however.

The transition team has also discussed contingency plans for the possibility that the Trump administration would refuse to cooperate and share information during a transition, according to another source close to Biden.

The prospect of dueling task forces in both outgoing and incoming administrations could create tension as the country races to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, as one or more of the candidates currently in clinical trials could be approved during the transition.

Biden, his running mate Kamala Harris, and other Democratic officials have for months raised concerns that the White House may be inappropriately pressuring the FDA to cut corners and rush out a vaccine for political purposes. Biden has said he will only promote a vaccine and take one himself if the scientific community vouches for it — prompting Republicans to accuse him of promoting “anti-vaccine theories.” Trump ultimately did not roll out a vaccine before Election Day as he’d previously promised, and one may not be widely available until late next year.

Emanuel said the Biden campaign had long anticipated that if the former vice president wins Tuesday’s election, he will inherit a still-raging pandemic, even if his campaign didn’t know it would be this bad by the time he entered the White House.

“The Biden team has always recognized, fully, that Covid was never going to go away by the time they would take over,” he said. “And we always knew we were going to have a surge because of more people being indoors in the winter.”

Biden’s campaign has also focused for months on the pandemic’s deep racial disparities, particularly the disproportionately high infections and deaths in communities of color, and Biden has been briefed on policies that could promote more equitable access to testing, treatment and workplace protections.

But even as cases, hospitalizations and deaths began climbing in early fall, the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force faded into the background — their dire warnings about a winter virus surge and pleas for measures to combat it going largely unheeded.

“We have not met with the president in quite some time,” National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told NPR in late October. “There’s not a direct connection between the task force members and the president as there was a few months ago. But this seems to be a different time with different priorities.”

Vice President Mike Pence, the nominal leader of Trump’s coronavirus task force, has been absent from task force planning calls with governors for more than a month as he’s campaigned for Trump’s reelection. And the task force hasn’t held a public press briefing in several months.

While the task force is still actively urging states to impose mask mandates and close some businesses as the virus surges, many governors are ignoring their advice. And the president has actively undermined it by mocking mask-wearing, pushing states to completely reopen in spite of conditions on the ground, claiming without evidence that the pandemic is “going away,” and openly threatening to fire the task force’s most prominent member — Dr. Anthony Fauci — after Election Day.

Beyond a pledge to bring national reconciliation and healing, the driving message of Biden’s campaign has been that he will take a different approach to Covid-19 if he wins Tuesday. He has promised to implement basic virus control measures scientists have long begged for: a national system for testing and contact tracing, targeted business closures, and the promotion of mask-wearing as a patriotic act. This stronger federal approach to the outbreak would be a sharp departure from the Trump administration’s strategy of leaving most decisions up to individual states.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview that given the state of the pandemic, the task force’s creation is “good news.”

“We are still 11 weeks away from the inauguration — that’s a potentially dangerous and damaging time for the American public with the virus still raging,” she said. “So hopefully this can give the American public some confidence that they’re not on their own, that the pandemic isn’t a Democratic plot, that the numbers are very real and that we have choices.”

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