- Experts say they’re hopeful now that President-elect Joe Biden has formed a COVID-19 task force.
- They say the top priorities for the panel should be distributing truth and building trust among the general public.
- They also hope the incoming administration can convince governors, mayors, and other officials to institute mandatory mask wearing policies.
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As President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force prepares to launch its fight against the pandemic, infectious disease experts are eager for them to build a virus-mitigating plan that’s nationally adopted.
They’re also hoping that the team will build something less tangible — a much-needed serum for the general population: Truth, transparency, and trust in science.
Without that, experts agree, even a powerful vaccine has little chance of success.
“Attitudes about [how to deal with the pandemic] are quite diverse, and I would go as far [as] to say some are even opposed to science,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee, told Healthline.
“Of course, the virus doesn’t care about politics. It just wants to get down our throats and into our lungs,” he said.
That’s why Schaffner hopes the task force focuses in real time on winning back trust and convincing the public — elected officials included — to buy into the steps that disease experts like him have been pushing for months.
The new task force, in Schaffner’s view, is “well-balanced” with true experts in science, infectious disease, government, and the economy.
That makeup, he said, along with the president-elect’s vow to embrace and promote science, gives him hope.
The first step, infectious disease experts say, is creating a national mask mandate, something President-elect Biden has spoken of often.
While Biden and his team cannot require masking nationally, reaching out to convince governors and mayors to put requirements in place is an option.
“We need a national response,” Schaffner said. “We’ve done the other experiment [with states and counties adopting their own unique levels of rules around masks and physical distancing] and, hello, it doesn’t work.”
That, Schaffner said, will take a deft touch.
“They need to give [leaders who pushed back on science] an off ramp, so they don’t have to say they were wrong,” Schaffner said. “Instead, they can find a way to say ‘things have changed, so now we will do this.’”
Schaffner points to other countries that have been able to manage the virus better with a national response.
“We have to come together as a single country,” he said. “Maine has to do this the same way New Mexico does. And it all starts with masks.”
As they continue to battle what they now call “waves in a chronic pandemic,” frontline workers across the nation are watching the Biden team as well.
They’re hoping for some specific actions to happen quickly, not just to help them treat people with COVID-19 better — but for everyone.
“We want the public to be as healthy as they can, should they need to have surgery at this time,” Dr. Beverly K. Philip, FACA, FASA, the newly installed president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, told Healthline.
“Masks, handwashing, and social distancing,” she said. “We need more buy-in across the nation.”
They say there’s more they need as well.
Personal protective equipment, she said, is still an issue on the front lines with “roaming shortages” a constant challenge.
So, too, are drug shortages.
“When there is a spike in an area and we need certain drugs in the ICU, we are still seeing shortages,” Philip said. “The problem is, the U.S. uses an international supply chain. The task force needs to address that. Government agencies have been working the best they can, but more work is needed.”
She’d also like the task force to look at more virus impacts, such as the long-term health of survivors and the financial hit anesthesiologists take when regular surgeries are limited.
“In the earlier time of this, we (the nation) paid hospitals to get through it, but not physician practices,” she said. “They need to support those people if the need comes again.”
Thomas A. LaVeist, PhD, the dean of Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in Louisiana, also feels hopeful with the forming of Biden’s team.
He points out that the panel first needs to embrace what the current administration did correctly — namely, the work of Operation Warp Speed.
“It’s fair to say that Operation Warp Speed, even with all its flaws, has been successful,” LaVeist told Healthline. “It’s gotten us pretty far.”
With Pfizer’s potential vaccine showing a probable 90 percent effective rate in phase 3 clinical trials, he said, we “did in 10 months what normally takes 10 years.”
Schaffner agreed, saying the task force doesn’t need to amp up focus on what both Operation Warp Speed and Pfizer are doing.
“Leave that alone,” he said. “The process is in place.”
The focus around the vaccination, LaVeist said, should be on transparency, which will lead to trust.
The paired timing of the vaccination news and the task force creation could be kismet for that, he said.
“I’ve been in many conversations on the vaccination uptake and it’s clear. More people are inclined to trust a vaccination from a Biden administration than from a Trump administration,” LaVeist said.
That doesn’t mean the new task force is a magic wand, though.
“The decision to approve will most likely land with the Biden administration and that’s good trust-wise,” LaVeist said. “But we know mistrust is still going to be an issue. The task force needs to work to lessen it.”
LaVeist said a good public relations and communications program should be created. He pointed to a “60 Minutes” segment on Operation Warp Speed as an example of what “we all need more of.”
LaVeist is happy with the makeup of the Biden team and hopes the public, through education, understands the need for the “right people in charge.”
“We need to reassure people that our leaders are consulting with true experts,” he said.
With the transfer of power in early stages, now could be the right time, Schaffner believes.
“People are thinking of this as a new beginning,” he said. “We may finally get a nationally-approved plan to fight this. We’ve never had one.”
LaVeist said he hopes everyone can learn from the pandemic.
“The number one thing we have in public health is our integrity,” he said. “We should focus on the science and leave the politics to the politicians.”
None of this will be an easy lift, Schaffner said.
“What we are doing here is trying to turn two ocean liners in the same direction,” he said. “That’s going to require a lot of effort.”