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The On Point Coronavirus Task Force

President-elect Joe Biden is shown speaking on a monitor about COVID-19 in the briefing room of the White House on November 9, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden is shown speaking on a monitor about COVID-19 in the briefing room of the White House on November 9, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

This year, we’ve talked to some of the top scientists and doctors in the country about the pandemic. We pull them back together for a meeting of our own task force to hear their advice for the Biden team.

Guests

Angie Rasmussen, associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity. ( @angie_rasmussen)

Kathleen Sebelius, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary. Former governor of Kansas. ( @Sebelius)

Dr. Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology and assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Associate medical director in clinical microbiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Core member of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. ( @michaelmina_lab)

Dr. Ali Khan, professor of epidemiology and dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Author of “ The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers.” ( @UNMC_DrKhan)

Interview Highlights

In the midst of a coronavirus surge, Joe Biden took his first major step as president-elect: announcing the creation of a COVID-19 transition advisory board.

Throughout the course of this pandemic, we’ve talked with many distinguished public health experts. And today, we convened a meeting of our own informal COVID-19 advisory board — we’re calling it the “On Point Coronavirus Task Force” – to hear how they’d advise the folks who have president-elect Biden’s ear.

So, On Point task force. On day one, what are your priorities for the Biden administration? 

Angie Rasmussen: “Day one that Biden takes office, I think probably the first priority is going to be things that he can accomplish immediately. So instating a nationwide mask mandate.

“But, I think even before that, the first priority really needs to be establishing a good communication, or line of communication with the public. I think that one of the reasons why the pandemic has gone off the rails the way that it has is there has been a lot of mixed messaging and there’s really been an information vacuum in which … misinformation and conspiracy theories have really thrived.

“I think that on day one now they need to really put together a clear and consistent, unambiguous message to the public about what they plan to do and what the public should be doing to support those efforts.”

Ali Khan: “Before I get to my top priorities, I think we should remember that 4,500 deaths a day, there’s going to be 50,000 to 100,000 people who are not going to live by the time of the inauguration.

“So my first set of advice would actually be to the current president to either step up with the science or step out of the way for the science and CDC. But if 50,000 to 100,000 deaths from now we’re still on this death spiral, I’d have three messages for the president.

“And message No. 1 is around strategy and partnership. Public health is a local responsibility, and we need to adopt a containment strategy in conjunction with the governors and … with the state local health officials. No. 2, I agree with Angie, is around communication. How do we communicate a strategy of hope and horizon? That’s about getting rid of cases as opposed to the endless spiral we’re on now. And then No. 3 is obviously execution. How do we execute … that strategy?”

Michael Mina: “The absolute first thing starting today is to just start building trust. … This is a pandemic and a virus that doesn’t care about politics and doesn’t care about borders. And so really getting everyone on board to recognize just the immense challenge ahead of us and that we all have to play a part.

“More pragmatically, I think we’ve seen a fairly lackadaisical — to say it lightly — approach to this virus so far by the current administration. And shifting mindset and shifting gears to start pouring the resources into this fight that it really deserves and mandates at this point.

“Treating it like a war, frankly, and figuring out what resources would normally go into a war that would otherwise be killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. And taking that mindset and place it into all the science and all of the activities that we’re going to have to do as a nation to battle it back.”

If you were talking to President-elect Biden right now, what would you advise him to do? How can he build trust with the American public?

Angie Rasmussen: “This is going to be something that is going to take quite a bit of time. I think that what the current administration has done has really eroded the trust in public health agencies and public health authority and lost the engagement of the public. And I really strongly believe that you can’t have public health without the public actively participating in it.

“So the first thing I think that President-elect Biden is going to have to do is reach out directly to the American people and tell them exactly what the situation is right now. There needs to be complete and total transparency about the, frankly, really bad situation that we are in right now, the trajectory that we are on. And give clear guidance, science-based, evidence-based guidance on how we can contain that and mitigate the effects that this upward case trajectory is on.”

On how President-elect Biden should communicate with the public

Angie Rasmussen: “I think that to the American people, that’s the advice that people need to be hearing over and over, because much of that guidance has been undermined.

“And I think in tandem with that, the Biden team needs to be reaching out to governors, state and local health officials and really establishing a collaborative working relationship. Because, as Ali [Khan] pointed out, public health does happen on a local level. And we need to have everybody on board, not just other Democrats or people within the Biden sphere. We really need to establish those working relationships so that they can reiterate the same message to the people.”

On how to communicate with the public 

Ali Khan: “There’s a couple of components to this communication. So I think, first, it’s about communicating hope and horizon to the American people. Reminding them that countries like China, Australia, most recently Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, I can go on and on, have zero cases and zero deaths today. So we have the tools available to us today if we wanted zero cases in America. And I think it’s very good to remind Americans of that. And even across America, certain states have made the important public health decisions to get cases down, whereas other cases have not.

“And I’m very, very sure that Americans in New Hampshire and Maine look genetically just like Americans in Nebraska, and Iowa and North Dakota. And I’m very sure the virus is the exact same virus hanging out in New England that’s hanging out in the Midwest. So if it’s not the virus and it’s not our genetics, then it’s basically policy and the choices that we’re making. So remind people of that and then communicate. So I love the communication part, needless to say.

“But I think communication part starts with: What is the strategy? How are you going to do the control triad? … We know the control triad is what gets rid of disease within these countries that have been very successful. And the control triad starts with evidence-based, data-driven, metric-driven leadership at all levels. Local, state and national. Couple that with decreasing community transmission — that’s about test, trace, isolate and quarantine. And finally, component No. 3 is community engagement around masking, social distancing and hand washing. The control triad has worked everywhere anybody has decided to use it.”

On getting local government involved in public communication

Michael Mina: “Getting governors on board is exceedingly important right now. Biden isn’t faced with the challenge of getting the people who voted for him on board with this. In general, this virus, unfortunately, I said that it doesn’t care about politics, but politics seems to care about the virus. And the people and the communities across the country that might be hardest to really get on board, to understand … what steps we have to take, are going to be likely not the people who largely voted for him.

“And so one of the challenges or one of the avenues that he has is to use the much more narrow scope of people that he could work with, which are governors and people across all of the states, to really speak to their constituents first, use them to get a science-based approach into their thinking. And then I think Biden can really start speaking to the whole population. But I do worry that if he starts right off the bat, assuming everyone is listening to him about this virus, there’s going to be a lot of people who do not.

“And the strategy, I think the strategy and science go hand in hand with this. I’ve said it a million times that we need strategy for this virus. We have to treat it like a war. And we would never just flagrantly sort of throw soldiers abroad or something, and throw guns somewhere else, and soldiers over here and tanks over there and say, hopefully it all works out. We would be very, very strategic at every step of the process. And we need to start doing that.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “ Pandemic Reaches Grim Milestone as Biden Moves to Take Charge” — “Coronavirus cases surged to a new record on Monday, with the United States now averaging 111,000 cases each day for the past week, a grim milestone amid rising hospitalizations and deaths that cast a shadow on positive news about the effectiveness of a potential vaccine.”

Washington Post: “ Pfizer coronavirus vaccine could be cleared by mid-December following release of data showing it is more than 90 percent effective” — “The news Monday that Pfizer’s experimental coronavirus vaccine is more than 90 percent effective sharply increased prospects that federal regulators will authorize the vaccine on an emergency basis as early as mid-December, and that the first shots will be administered before the end of the year or early next year.”

New York Times: “ The Surging Coronavirus Finds a Federal Leadership Vacuum” — “When senior Food and Drug Administration officials held their morning call on Tuesday, they received a sobering warning from the agency’s chief, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, who had just gotten off the phone with the White House.”

NBC News: “ HHS Secretary: Coronavirus ‘general vaccination’ programs by spring” — “Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar predicted Tuesday that there would be enough Covid-19 vaccine for general public vaccination campaigns by spring 2021.”

Medium Coronavirus Blog: “ SARS-CoV-2 Is Behaving Like a Textbook Virus” — “This virus is not happening in a vacuum where no information existed previously on immunity, on testing, on serology, on transmission, on masks, on treatments. We must stop this narrative that we know nothing of this virus until we learn it anew — again.”

Politico: “ Biden and his shadow health panel start plotting pandemic response” — “President-elect Joe Biden gave clear signals on Monday that his administration will take a completely different approach to the coronavirus pandemic — warning that the United States would face a ‘very dark winter,’ unveiling a new Covid advisory group stacked with veteran public health experts, lowering expectations for a rapidly available vaccine and making an urgent plea for Americans to cover their faces and slow the soaring rate of infection.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.