WASHINGTON - U.S. President-elect Joe Biden introduced his top health care officials on Tuesday, all of whom will quickly face the country’s grim world-leading coronavirus statistics: nearly 15 million infections and more than 283,000 deaths.
Biden, set to be inaugurated January 20, vowed an all-out fight to control the pandemic and called on Americans to wear face masks in public for the first 100 days of his presidency. The number of new U.S. coronavirus cases is soaring, reaching 200,000 or more on some days.
While many Americans in some parts of the country have resisted wearing face masks, Biden said in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, that doing so was “not a political statement. It’s a patriotic act.”
Biden also set a goal of administering 100 million vaccination shots during his first 100 days in office and ensuring most of the country’s schools reopen in that same time frame. Many now conduct classes virtually, but studies have shown that struggling students have fallen further behind their classmates with online learning replacing classroom instruction.
Biden called health care “a right for all, not a privilege for a few.”
He said he would “spare not a single effort to get this pandemic under control.”
Biden tapped former Congressman Xavier Becerra to be his Health and Human Services chief to lead the country’s fight against the virus and oversee millions of vaccinations in the coming months. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could approve the first vaccine against COVID-19 in the coming days, although it will be months before most Americans are inoculated.
Outgoing President Donald Trump, defeated for re-election by Biden in last month’s national vote, delivered remarks during Tuesday’s Operation Warp Speed summit on the government’s effort to produce several vaccines against the coronavirus.
Trump described the record-breaking speed with which the vaccines were developed was a “monumental national achievement” that would save millions of lives and “end the pandemic.”
Although Biden has promised to get inoculated when a vaccine is approved as safe, polls show about four in 10 Americans are wary of getting the shots or will refuse to be vaccinated.
Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser to the Trump administration's vaccine development effort, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” show on Tuesday that Trump health officials will share vaccine information with Biden transition officials on Thursday, the same day an FDA panel is to review a vaccine developed by the corporate tandem of drug makers Pfizer and BioNTech.
“We look forward to, you know, sharing all the information and working together,” Slaoui said. “Our objective has always been outside of politics and making sure we make available these vaccines for the U.S. people, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Becerra, Biden’s choice to lead the sprawling Health and Human Services agency, is currently attorney general for the Pacific Coast state of California. Becerra led the defense last month in the U.S. Supreme Court against a conservative bid to overturn the country’s Affordable Care Act, in a case yet to be decided.
At one point during his 24 years in the House of Representatives, Becerra worked to win approval for the national health care law that has provided insurance coverage to millions of Americans.
Biden picked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, as his chief medical adviser on COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Fauci will also continue in his longtime role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci, 79, has served as a medical adviser to six U.S. presidents and for months was the face of the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic. But in the months before the presidential election, Trump grew increasingly angered at Fauci’s grim assessments of the spread of the infection and sidelined him in favor of more upbeat commentary.
Throughout his campaign, Biden said he will pay close attention to scientific findings about the coronavirus from Fauci and other medical experts. Aside from reviewing the Pfizer vaccine, U.S. health regulators are to review another produced by the Moderna biotechnology firm next week. Millions of doses of the vaccines could be available later this month, with millions more in early 2021.
Biden named Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general, a position he held from 2014 to 2017 during the administration of former President Barack Obama, when Biden was second-in-command.
The president-elect picked Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a top expert on virus testing, prevention and treatment in the eastern state of Massachusetts, as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Biden chose Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, an expert on health care disparities among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., as chair of his COVID-19 equity task force. She is an associate professor of medicine, public health and management at the Yale School of Medicine.
He also picked business executive Jeffrey Zients, a former director of the National Economic Council under Obama, as a coordinator of his COVID-19 response team and a counselor to him.
Biden named former White House and Pentagon senior adviser Natalie Quillian as deputy coordinator of the government’s response to the pandemic.