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As COVID-19 Cases Surge, Biden To Announce A Plan

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Joe Biden made a promise when he spoke for the first time as president-elect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I will name a group of leading scientists and experts as transition advisers to help take the Biden-Harris COVID plan and convert it into an action blueprint that will start on January 20, 2021.

GREENE: Today, Biden announced those members of his task force, and they're going to have a lot on their hands. This month, the United States continues to set daily records for COVID cases. On Saturday alone, there were more than 127,000 confirmed cases. So how important will the work of this task force be?

Well, we have Dr. Ashish Jha with us. He's a frequent guest on our program through the pandemic. He's back with us today - public health policy researcher, physician, dean of Brown University School of Public Health. Dr. Jha, thanks for coming back.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me back.

GREENE: I just want to put the work of President-elect Biden and his task force in perspective here. I mean, they're named today, but they're still going to have to wait more than 70 days before they can actually enact policy, right? What are the consequences and implications of that?

JHA: Yeah. So we are entering probably the toughest couple of months of the pandemic just in terms of sheer number of infections across the country. And as you said, this expert panel is not going to have a lot of power right now. So they can do a lot still to try to begin to help the country move forward, but they're ultimately going to have their biggest impact once Mr. Biden is actually in office.

GREENE: Well, I've read that you have been in touch, at times, with some members of the Trump administration seeking your advice in different moments. I mean, have you seen any signs that they might change course given the record numbers of cases that we're seeing right now in this spike?

JHA: You know, that would be - that's really what we need. I mean, the model that we should be following is the 2008 financial crisis model when President Bush and incoming President Obama set up a joint task force to work together during the transition. I still hold out hope that President Trump will allow his team members to do that with Mr. Biden's. But there hasn't been a lot of interest in the White House so far in the last couple of months in controlling the virus, and I just don't know if that will change in the next couple of months.

GREENE: How crucial would that kind of coordination be - I mean, to have the incoming administration and the outgoing administration actually talking to each other and kind of getting the country through this?

JHA: Well, I mean, it would be - first of all, it would be critical. And I think it would save tens of thousands of lives literally...

GREENE: Wow.

JHA: ...Because we could start enacting policies that are going to eventually be enacted anyway but couple of months earlier and really during the months when things are just going to be so bad.

Second, I think it's borderline outrageous that that's not happening. I mean, if you think about it, you know, the entire Trump team, they're still on the government payroll. They're paid by the American people. We should really demand that they work with Mr. Biden's team to do this in a joint and coordinated way.

GREENE: But I mean, we've seen polling showing us that so many Americans who think that we are through the worst of this and that this pandemic might be all but over voted for President Trump, which means there are a lot of - I mean, we are - have a very divided country with a lot of people who just don't believe in the severity of this. How does the Biden team reach out to those Americans?

JHA: Well, I think, first and foremost, through consistent messaging - I mean, part of the problem has been that literally since February, President Trump has been saying that the virus is about to go away, whether it's in April or over the summer, and now we're rounding the turn. Hopefully, Mr. Biden can present much more consistent messaging. His scientists can present more consistent messaging. I think that will help. People will see it in their own communities in terms of number of infections. Hospitals are starting to fill up really across much of America. Hopefully, the combination of personal experience and more consistent messaging will help people understand that we really are not anywhere near through this pandemic.

GREENE: To what extent does fatigue play into, you know, the Biden team's thinking here? I mean, there are a lot of people, the public health care workers who - I mean, this has been so long now. Fatigue is setting in. And a lot of people were worried about their livelihoods, their jobs, the economy.

JHA: Yeah. So, again, I think here there are two parts. There's a messaging part, which reminds people that the best economic policy is controlling the virus. Control the virus, and we can open up much more of the economy. The second part is, you know, I don't think we've all - in the public health community even - have done a particularly good job of clear messaging. No one is interested in another lockdown. That is not where we want to be. There are certain things that are high risk, certain things that are low risk. And we shouldn't - you know, we should be encouraging people to do low-risk things and avoid the high-risk things. And I think we just haven't quite gotten that messaging right, and I'm hoping that that can come from the new set of leaders that Mr. Biden is going to be naming.

GREENE: As you're sitting there looking at these record daily numbers now this far into the pandemic, I mean, do you see any reason to be optimistic?

JHA: I do. I'll tell you a path out of this because right now, if we don't do anything, we're going to have another 100,000 Americans die between now and Inauguration Day. But we can avoid that. And I think the best path forward is Congress getting resources to states and states taking more leadership over the next couple of months. If that happens, I'm much more optimistic that we can avoid those kind of horrible death tolls.

GREENE: Dr. Ashish Jha is dean of Brown University's School of Public Health and has been on our program a good bit during the pandemic to help us understand this.

Thank you so much, as always.

JHA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.