Joe Biden effectively took ownership of the fight against the coronavirus on Monday with a presidential-style call to action, but he can do little more than plan, plead for the wearing of masks and hope the “dark winter” he predicted doesn’t sour the nation on his ability to quell the pandemic before he gets into office on Jan. 20.
Biden beat Donald Trump by promising to do a better job defeating the virus, and with a short and unforgiving window to show progress, Biden was left on Monday trying to raise hopes without unrealistically raising expectations as the virus spreads.
“No question, he starts with a handicap, for sure, in the sense this will be much more of a burden when he takes over,” said George Abraham, chair of the Infectious Disease Board at the American Board of Internal Medicine. “It’s not that he’s going to inherit some rosy version of the recovery.”
The U.S. hit a grim milestone and recorded more than 100,000 daily cases for the first time on Nov. 5 — and has remained above that threshold every day since. Deaths, a lagging indicator, are rising again. The virus is now uncontrolled in nearly every state.
The global picture isn’t any better. A resurgent coronavirus is also battering Europe, from Ireland to Italy. Germany has more severe Covid-19 patients than at any point since the pandemic began. France started a second lockdown on Oct. 30, with limits on movement and closures of some stores, as infections rose too fast to await the effects of curfews. Much of the U.K. is in a partial lockdown, with some pubs and non-essential shops forced to close and socializing severely restricted.
Biden used the symbolism of his first big statement following his acceptance speech to show that, unlike Trump, containment of the virus and a deference to science would be his first priority. He unveiled a coronavirus task force to develop policy for the early days of the administration.
The stakes are high — experts widely expect the virus, already at record daily case levels, to worsen in winter, fueled by both colder weather driving people indoors and by Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings sure to fuel outbreaks. Yet Biden’s options are decidedly mixed.
Until then, he is left to focus on messaging in the hopes of improving the hand he’ll be dealt: Encouraging Americans and governors to heed advice of scientists so that the virus plateaus or at least slows its growth by the time he takes office. Biden needs to change the trajectory now or take over in what will be the depths of the outbreak.
“There’s a need for bold action to fight this pandemic. We’re still facing a very dark winter,” Biden said after unveiling his advisory board. “Please, I implore you: Wear a mask. Do it for yourself, do it for your neighbor. A mask is not a political statement, but it is a good way to start pulling the country together.”
The Trump and Biden campaigns were a study in contrasts but few differences were as stark as the virus: Trump repeatedly said that Biden would shut down the country again, and insisted the U.S. was “rounding the turn” even as cases soared. Biden, in turn, said he’d listen to scientists and look for ways to quell the virus while doing everything possible to avoid widespread lockdown measures.
He took his first step Monday, unveiling his virus advisory panel co-chaired by former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor of public health at Yale University. The panel includes other advisers, such as Rick Bright, the former official turned whistle-blower in the Trump administration. It’s a heavily credentialed group that fulfills Biden’s pledge to rely on scientists in guiding his response.
Trump has routinely feuded with his science advisers, including Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases. Trump seldom wears a mask and on Election Night invited dozens of guests who crowded into the East Room about 2:30 a.m. — almost none wearing masks. Since then, his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who’s a physician, and a close adviser, David Bossie, have all tested positive for the virus.
Part of the U.S. problem is a patchwork system that has largely left decisions to states — allowing the virus to thrive in one state and then move to ones that had tried more stringent measures.
“Having different states follow different guidelines is a recipe for disaster,” Abraham said.
Americans are all but certain to hear mixed messages in the next two months, including different rules in different states, Trump likely continuing to downplay the virus, and Biden imploring Americans to take it seriously.
“The next two to three months are really going to be by far the darkest of the pandemic,” Michael Osterholm, a Biden advisory board member who leads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told WCCO radio in Minneapolis on Monday.
Biden imminently faces one politically fraught crossroads: Whether to tell Americans to skip Thanksgiving celebrations.
“I have obviously not been popular by discouraging Thanksgiving Day get-togethers, Christmas holidays, planning for that,” Osterholm said, encouraging Americans to skip those functions. “Feel empowered this year to say no — not because you’re being difficult, but because you love your family.”
Biden could issue new, clear guidance to states and try to extend olive branches to Republican officials who’ve so far followed Trump’s approach to instead consider things like mask mandates, he said. Deborah Birx, a White House adviser who’s been marginalized by Trump, has traveled to states trying to deliver a warning about the severity of the outbreak.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, issued a mask mandate on Sunday as new cases escalated for the fifth consecutive day.
Once he takes office, Biden will have the machinery of a coronavirus response that has often been at odds with Trump. Biden’s advisers havesignaled that they won’t make major changes to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s efforts to spur development of a vaccine.
Biden will also have to find a way to expand testing capacity, clear bottlenecks and find ways to offer free testing.
He may benefit politically from the arrival of a vaccine, though the timing on that is unclear.Pfizer Inc. andBioNTech SE announced Monday that their vaccine candidate prevented more than 90% of symptomatic infections — a development that sent the stock soaring and led Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, to wonder why Pfizer announced it a week after the election.
But the status of vaccines remains unclear. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said that Biden’s team needs to “start educating that the vaccine alone is not going to save us.”
In unveiling his task force on Monday, Biden said “it’s clear that this vaccine, even if it is approved, will not be widely available for many months yet to come.”
— With assistance by Riley Griffin, and Michelle Fay Cortez
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