Joe Biden announced a team of advisors Monday who will be tasked with implementing the president-elect’s plan for fighting COVID-19.
“Today I've named a COVID-19 transition advisory board comprised of distinguished public health experts to help our transition team translate the Biden-Harris COVID-19 plan into action,” Biden said at a press briefing Monday. “A blueprint that we can put in place as soon as Kamala and I are sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2021.”
Public health experts say they expect the new administration’s approach to the pandemic to be fundamentally different from that of the Trump administration.
"I think the biggest thing that will change with a Biden administration is bringing scientific rigor and bringing strategy into the fight against this virus,” said Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
But while public health experts say Biden’s plan focuses on the key issues that need to be addressed right now, they acknowledge that making a meaningful difference will be a challenge.
"It's important to be realistic about how much we can do, how quickly,” said epidemiologist Andrew Lover of the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences. “The amount of virus floating around the country is incredible. And it's not going to be a fast or easy process to mitigate."
Also, Lover points out, it's more than two months until the president-elect can put any of this into effect. And the way things are trending now, the virus could be significantly worse by Inauguration Day.
Here’s Biden’s seven-point plan for fighting COVID-19, and what some public health experts are saying about it:
1. Expand testing capabilities
Biden wants to double the number of free, drive-through testing sites, invest in new testing technologies, and expand contact tracing.
"If we can get 20 million tests or even 10 million tests per day in the United States, that is enough to create herd effects across the whole of the United States,” Mina said. “Ten million is not out of reach. Twenty million is not out of reach."
Mina said expanded testing needs to be paired with a financial security net, so people know that if they do test positive, they're still going to be able to feed their families.
2. Fix PPE problems
Biden is pledging to fix the problems that have led to a shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
“With cases rising once more, it's imperative that we ramp up our production of personal protective equipment to make sure our brave health care workers have what they need to do, battle safely against this virus,” Biden said Monday.
To do that, his plan involves fully implementing the Defense Production Act, which authorizes the federal government to compel companies to manufacture materials deemed essential for national defense.
The Trump administrationinvoked the act in March, but Biden’s plan suggests it hasn’t been used to its full potential.
"For me, as someone who works in health care, obviously one of the things that I wanted to hear and did hear was utilization of the Defense Production Act to create enough to keep us safe," said Dr. Shira Doron, the hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. "Whatever is currently being done, we're not getting it [PPE]. We have people that don't fit any of the masks that we can get. So it's a problem. It is still a very big problem."
3. Provide clear guidance and resources for communities
The Biden plan calls for “clear, consistent, evidence-based national guidance for how communities should navigate the pandemic.” The plan also includes funding to help local governments, schools and small businesses deal with the added expenses of operating safely during the pandemic.
"We've had 50 states going in 50 different directions,” Dr. Howard Koh, professor of public health leadership at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told GBH’s In It Together last week. “We've had states compete against each other for supplies and test kits, and we've had lots of mixed messages from the national leaders, which has sowed so much confusion."
Even though Massachusetts has been somewhat successful at taking steps to control the pandemic, said Doron of Tufts Medical Center, a coherent national strategy is crucial to fighting the virus here.
"All of the work, the very, very hard work that the Baker administration and every individual resident of Massachusetts has done to drive down the pandemic can be so easily washed away," Doron said, because people can come into Massachusetts from states that aren’t being as careful.
4. Equitable distribution of treatments and a vaccine
Biden plans to invest $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan that will guarantee a vaccine gets to every American, cost-free.
“The logistics of vaccinating 300 million people are really daunting,” Lover said. “But the state-level departments of health already have kind of skeleton plans in place, and those will be adapted depending on which vaccine or vaccines become available,” he said. “But no one should underestimate the scale and complexity of that process.”
5. Protecting those at highest risk
The plan calls for research into racial disparities in COVID infections and outcomes, as well as helping seniors and other vulnerable people get more information about the spread of the virus in their communities.
“We're going to address the health and economic disparities that mean this virus is hitting the Black, Latino, Asian American Pacific Islanders, Native American communities harder than white communities,” Biden said Monday. “Focusing on these communities is one of our priorities, not an afterthought.”
Issues of racial equity arealso important in the development of vaccines, said Doron.
“We need to continue to make sure that all of the clinical trials are including a very wide or good sampling of the populations, so that everyone can understand that people like themselves were in the clinical trials and that the vaccine is effective for them,” she said.
6. Restoring relationship with the World Health Organization and expanding CDC research
Biden said he plans to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the WHO, as well as to restore the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was eliminated in 2018.
“Getting back our relationship and our standing in the international public health community so that we are working together with the rest of the countries in the world on a single goal here is important,” said Doron.
The CDC’s role in responding to the pandemic has been diminished under the current administration, said Lover.
“Historically, they've been the central organization with WHO for pandemics globally, and for them to be sidelined is just remarkably inefficient and not using the best resources we have," he said.
7. Nationwide mask mandate
At Monday’s press briefing, Biden pulled out a mask and implored the American people to wear them.
“It doesn't matter your party, your point of view,” Biden said. “We could save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Not Democrat or Republican lives, American lives.”
Studies show mask wearing could save more than 100,000 lives. Doron said mask mandates could help.
“Is it going to bring us to a place where there’s no pandemic, where we’re back to normal? Absolutely not,” she said. “But could we be in a situation that’s way better than we are today? We at least have to try.”
But implementing mandates across the country could be a challenge, Lover said, since it’s up to states to implement, and some states may just not play along. "I think there may be a wide variation in terms of which states choose to be more aggressive about it," he said.