President-elect Joe Biden needs to get to work on the covid-19 pandemic. Today.
Certainly, he will have to meet extraordinary challenges before his inauguration — beginning with President Trump’s resistance to accepting the election results.
But we have a country that is rapidly succumbing to a deadly virus. On Wednesday, the United States surpassed 100,000 daily covid-19 infections. Hospitalizations are up 64 percent from last month, with numerous intensive care units already exceeding capacity. Deaths are increasing and on track to reach 2,000 a day in the next two months. By the time Biden takes his oath of office, close to a half million Americans could be dead from the novel coronavirus.
Biden needs to try to turn this terrible trajectory around. What he doesn’t have yet in executive power, he makes up for in moral standing. The single most important action his administration can take is to level with the American people and tell us the hard truths about the actions the government and individuals need to take.
To that effect, Biden should have his top health experts provide daily briefings not just to him in private but also to the entire American public. These are the briefings we saw early in the pandemic, and that should have occurred all along, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government health officials. They should summarize the state of the pandemic and pinpoint geographic areas of concern. They should explain the latest science and how new research changes recommendations.
Biden has said he will immediately reach out to governors and mayors to find out what they need, and that’s good. His team should begin guiding state and local health officials — who have been left too long to figure out their own strategies — on coordinated, science-based policies aimed at reining in, rather than ignoring, the current covid-19 surge. The daily public briefings could explain the rationale behind these policies. The bully pulpit of an incoming president will provide support for the local officials who must put into place controversial restrictions.
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Biden’s biggest challenge will be to reestablish trust in the government’s ability to lead the country through the coronavirus crisis. In addition to the expert briefings, he needs to speak to the American people himself — bring back a 21st-century version of the “fireside chat.” Biden needs to win over those who didn’t support his candidacy by showing them that he understands them and has their best interests at heart. At a time when something as basic as a mask has been made into a partisan symbol, no policy will be effective unless Biden can persuade the American people to follow public health guidance as a shared commitment to one another.
To be sure, Biden’s team won’t have access to all the data that would be available if they were already in office. But they have enough to know where surges are occurring, what trends are being seen in hospitalization and ICU capacity, and what new research is showing. I am certain that career scientists within the federal government would be more than willing to assist the incoming team if the Trump administration gave them permission to do so. Even without this help, state and local health departments can choose to supply the Biden team with their data, and public health researchers in academic institutions can volunteer technical expertise.
Some might argue: Wouldn’t such activity before Biden’s inauguration be premature? Not at all. During this crisis that has been exacerbated by rampant disinformation, consistent and direct public communication can change behaviors and literally save lives. Such transparency is also key to restoring credibility for the CDC and other federal scientific institutions. And it’s not as if Biden would be usurping Trump’s role; the Trump administration has long since surrendered to the virus.
Moreover, even if the incoming administration can’t yet implement policies, an explanation that change is coming will help local policymakers take unpopular but necessary actions. For example, having a president-elect say that he plans to implement a national mask mandate takes the pressure off local health officials. This is particularly important for, say, a mayor who wants to enforce a mandate when the governor of their state does not. Also, if Biden makes clear he intends for any new federal funding to be contingent on localities complying with certain guidelines, it could spur local officials to take action in that direction ahead of Jan. 20.
Many other parts of the Biden pandemic plan can be put into place early. The incoming administration should name a “coronavirus czar” who can ramp up testing and ensure a stockpile of personal protective equipment and other crucial supplies. The czar could also quantify needs and put relevant companies on notice so the Defense Production Act can be activated on Day 1. That would also enable the new administration to mobilize public entities and private companies to establish a vaccine-production-and-distribution framework, ensuring that the “warp speed” of vaccine development is followed by equally rapid distribution.
America has already lost nine months to inaction. We have no more time to waste. The Biden administration has the mandate of the American people and it must begin its critical work — now.