And now back to our regularly scheduled Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic programming, which, by the way, isn’t going well at all.
In case you haven’t heard, Joe Biden is the presumptive President-elect. But he won’t have a whole lot of time to celebrate. One of the first key steps that he will taking as President-elect will be convening a Covid-19 coronavirus task force.
That’s because the pandemic is still a problem in the U.S., a big, big, big problem. You may have spent the last several days learning every county in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona, and dreaming of gigantic electoral maps chasing after you in your sleep. But the Covid-19 coronavirus didn’t. While the nation turned its lonely eyes to the U.S. Elections, the virus has kept on spreading. And spreading. And spreading.
In fact, with the weather getting colder and less humid and activities moving indoors, virus transmission seems to be picking up with more and more cases every day than the U.S. has ever seen. This could leave things very ugly by the time the current U.S. President, Donald Trump, is scheduled to leave office. That incidentally will be roughly 73 days or 1750 hours or 7.3 Scaramuccis from now, not that you may be necessarily counting.
All of this leaves the U.S. with an unusual, dare we say unprecedented, situation. There will be a transition in leadership right smack in the middle of an emergency. And it’s not as if the handling of the emergency to date has universally merited A’s from scientists and public health experts, unless those A’s happen to stand for “Arrgh” or “aaaa what are you doing?” Many experts have criticized the Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic as disorganized and chaotic. Googling the words “dumpster fire”, “pandemic”, and “Trump” will return a number of different articles highly critical of the national response as well as socks with little dumpster fire pictures and 2020’s on them. In fact, searching for the words “dumpster fire”, “pandemic”, and “Kardashian” may still yield such articles but not necessarily socks in the early results.
One of the criticisms of the Trump administration’s response has been the relative lack thereof. Trump has left a lot of the decision making to the states. Imagine being the coach of a sports team and then saying on game day, “OK, team, instead of having a game plan and plays, each of you just go do whatever you think is right. Don’t worry, though, the opponent is not very serious and going away soon. So if you want to lay down on the field, go ahead. Meanwhile, I will think of others to blame. You might consider injecting the football into your veins. Oh, and by the way, if you mess up, I will blame you.” Does that sounds familiar? It can be practically impossible to prevent and control the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) without a clear and clearly executed national strategy.
The current White House Coronavirus Task Force has been a bit of Game of Thrones-ish, not because there’s been nudity, thank goodness, but because there’s been extensive political intrigue. It’s been difficult tracking whose advice the President has actually been following. While Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was involved in press briefings early on, like a contestant on The Apprentice, he soon faded into the background. A similar thing happened to Deborah Birx, MD, who is supposed to be the Task Force’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator. Along the way, all sorts of characters emerged as potentially having the ear of the President when it comes to Covid-19, including a guy who sells pillows. In recent weeks, Scott Atlas, MD, seemed to emerge as a go-to person for Trump. While Atlas is a physician, he is a neuroradiologist, the kind of person who specializes in reading brain scans, and not some kind of infectious disease or public health expert.
The composition of Biden’s task force will be important. After all, starting ingredients matter. It’s hard to bake a cake with only hot dogs and beans on hand. Similarly, it’s difficult to develop a real Covid-19 coronavirus response without real scientists and public health experts at the helm. Biden hasn’t yet formally announced the members of the task force. That may come on Monday. Nevertheless, some names have already surfaced as possibilities, and none of them seem to specialize in demon sperm or think reptiles have replaced members of Congress.
Hans Nichols reported for Axios that three co-chairs will lead the task force: Vivek Murthy, MD, MPH, the former U.S. Surgeon General under President Barack Obama, David Kessler, M.D., J.D., the former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner from 1990 to 1997, and Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MHS, from Associate Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Yale University. According to Alice Miranda Ollstein, Theodoric Meyer, and Alex Thompson writing for POLITICO, other members of the task force will include Celine Gounder, MD, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at New York University, Zeke Emanuel, MD, PhD, former Obama White House aide and current Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and Julie Morita, MD, Executive Vice President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and former Chicago commissioner of health.
These names are not official or confirmed yet. But one thing’s for sure, Biden’s task force will not be led by current Vice President Mike Pence. Pence has been an odd fit as lead of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He is neither a public health nor a medical expert. That means that he has had to learn a lot on the fly, which is not to be confused with the fly that landed on his head during the Vice-Presidential election debate. While you may be able to cram Taylor Swift facts into your head before a trivia contest, understanding the prevention and control of infectious diseases does not happen overnight. Having someone who isn’t a scientist or medical expert run the White House Coronavirus Task Force can be like having a marmot as the quarterback of your football team or Kid Rock as the lead in a rom-com.
Biden’s task force should reach out to the broader scientific and public health communities as well. It has never been completely clear what data, studies, and models the current White House Coronavirus Task Force has been relying on for its decisions and whether the White House has been “cherry picking” what information to use. For example, the Trump Administration has repeatedly referred to one statistical modelling approach developed by the researchers from the University of Washington, despite it being only one type of model with associated strengths and limitations. The task force should be conduit for all of the scientific talent and expertise available in the U.S.
Biden and his team will have their work cut out for them. It can be much more difficult to clean up a mess than to build everything correctly in the first place. It also remains to be seen how cooperative the Trump Administration and the current White House Coronavirus Task Force will be between now and when Trump leaves office. Biden and his team will have no real authority until January 20, 2020, which besides being National Cheese Lover’s Day will be Inauguration Day. So the U.S. could be a bit like a rental car until then.
Regardless, one of the first steps will be making it clear to the public that the pandemic needs to be taken much more seriously and that over 236,000 people dying and many more suffering are not good things. That may sound absurd, but such is the state of America in 2020.