Experts see a sharp change in strategy coming to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic with the election of former Vice President Joe Biden to the presidency.
"It's likely to be well organized, it's likely to have clear communication, and it's likely to be based on science. Those are three very important and very refreshing changes," said Thomas Frieden, former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and president and CEO of the health nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives.
Biden, who is projected to win the election, is moving forward with transition plans and outlining his policy for after taking office, even while the Trump campaign files legal challenges to the vote. The president and many Republican leaders have not conceded the race, however Republican lawmakers who won seats in the election are accepting their race results.
With nearly 240,000 deaths, the United States has the world's seventh-highest coronavirus death rate adjusted for population, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Many scientists blame President Donald Trump for a bungled response. After nine months of Trump downplaying the pandemic, ridiculing masks, promoting unproven and dangerous treatments for coronavirus infection, and hosting a super-spreader event at the White House, public health experts are breathing a sigh of relief at early messages from the Biden transition team.
Trump has insisted that the nation was “rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner” in recovering from the pandemic, even as cases have surged dramatically throughout the country. During a campaign rally In Florida last month, Trump said, “Under my leadership, we’re delivering a safe vaccine and a rapid recovery like no one can even believe. If you look at our upward path, no country in the world has recovered the way we have recovered.”
"The challenge we've had is that the administration in many ways has been very anti-science," said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "And now you're going to have a response driven by science."
Biden has announced that the pandemic is one of the top four issues he plans to deal with immediately upon taking office, along with economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
"The fact that this is something that is being taken seriously is very different than what we saw during the Trump administration, where this was something that was evaded, where it was thought not to be a major problem," said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Biden's team of experts
Biden has appointed a team of experts with deep and broad knowledge of infectious diseases and public health.
The panel has three co-chairs. Dr. David Kessler headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Dr. Vivek Murthy was surgeon general from 2014 to 2017. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith is a leading researcher on health equity.
"They are trying to highlight putting scientists and experts front and center," said Adriane Casalotti, government and public affairs chief at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
The panel also includes a former Trump administration official who clashed with the president over coronavirus treatment.
Rick Bright headed the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. He filed a whistleblower complaint after he said he was demoted for resisting Trump's efforts to promote the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.
The drug has proved ineffective against the coronavirus in a string of studies, including the latest one published Monday.
Several panel members have experience in global public health, including Dr. Eric Goolsby, who was U.S. global AIDS coordinator in the Obama administration.
In a global pandemic, Casalotti said, "we really need to be partnering to address the pandemic in all corners."
Members with on-the-ground public health experience include Dr. Julie Morita, who Casalotti notes served in lead roles in Chicago's Department of Public Health for nearly two decades. Morita currently is executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
No immediate authority
Like all presidential transition committees, the panel has no immediate authority to make decisions. Members will be working to put together a plan for Biden to implement upon inauguration January 20.
"A lot of the problems we've had so far is that we really haven't done really meaningful, impactful planning," APHA's Benjamin said.
Over the next 10 weeks, he said, the Biden administration "can be getting their team together, they can assign roles and they can hit the ground running."