Details Surrounding Nation's COVID-19 Response in Limbo as Election Results Remain Unresolved

Coronavirus United States_Compressed

Multiple vaccines for the novel coronavirus will likely begin to roll out across the United States within the next month following strong data from Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as Moderna. With limited doses currently available, the logistics of inoculation are in the works and will certainly require guidance from the outgoing and incoming administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, respectively.

Still, with legal challenges in some states still up in the air, the Trump administration has not conceded the results of the Nov. 3 election. This has left the Biden team somewhat in the dark regarding the federal government’s COVID-19 response and has raised some concern about whether or not this rocky transition will disrupt the distribution of vaccines and other essential tools to fight the pandemic. Biden has warned that the lack of coordination between administration teams will lead to a “dark winter.”  Even as President-elect Biden coalesces his own pandemic team, that lack of communication has created some hurdles that will have to be quickly overcome.

Biden has signaled that he will allow the nation’s top scientists to step back into the spotlight when it comes to notifying the nation about the ongoing pandemic, as opposed to political appointees who are more apt to stick to talking points. Who those scientists may be are not yet known. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, infectious disease experts had the limelight, but their messages that were laser-focused on public health often ran afoul of the Trump administration’s broader messaging.

The Biden team is likely to re-elevate Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who has often contradicted some of the messaging from the White House. While Fauci has enjoyed enormous popular support for his factual reports on the spread of the virus, he has often angered Trump, who has infamously downplayed the severity of the virus. Fauci told USA Today he wants to begin discussing strategy with the Biden team, but has not been in contact with them in order to ensure a smooth transition. But, because of Trump’s ongoing challenges to the election results in multiple states, Fauci has been unable to coordinate with the Biden team. Fauci said he understands that the Biden team does not want to compromise him by seeking back-channel communications.

“… it's quite obvious that this is a very sensitive period. I don't want to get into that. I have tried to the best of my ability to stay out of the political aspects and just focus on my role as a public health person, a physician and a scientist,” Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today.

While Fauci has remained fairly popular, another longtime public health expert has seen her credibility with the public wane. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, may not continue in her role when the Biden team takes over. Because she is so closely linked with the Trump administration, despite her longtime government service, there is concern her presence will impede the 2021 response, Politica reported.

“It’s complicated,” Céline Gounder, who sits on Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, told Politico. “It’s almost like she herself has been politicized.”

Despite Birx’s familiarity with the response and the support she has from career public health professionals, her role is likely in jeopardy because of politics.

In an interview with STAT News, Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale physician and researcher who was tapped by Biden as a co-chair of the COVID-19 task force, said the incoming president will need help beyond the scientists. He will also need to find common ground with some people outside the government, including those who are vocal supporters of the current administration, Nunez-Smith said. The effort will require entertainers, elected officials, religious leaders and more to encourage the use of face masks, social distancing and support the need for vaccination when it is broadly available.

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