Presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden on Monday named a team of TV-ready scientists and veterans of the Clinton and Obama administrations to help him tackle COVID-19 next year, signaling an approach that will stress universal mask-wearing and a national strategy instead of a patchwork of state plans.
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will co-chair the Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, offering a seasoned communicator as Mr. Biden leans on the public and governors to make face coverings a cultural norm across America instead of a symbol of division.
“A mask is not a political statement,” Mr. Biden said in remarks from Delaware.
Dr. Murthy is joined at the top by David Kessler, who led the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s and has warned about the perils of letting politics infect public health messages as the nation prepares for a vaccine rollout.
The third co-chair, Marcella Nunez-Smith, is a Yale expert whose research focuses on assisting marginalized populations, as Mr. Biden highlights the pandemic’s impact on minorities.
“This group will advise on detailed plans built on a bedrock of science and that keep compassion, empathy and care for every American at its core,” Mr. Biden said.
He said the team will zero in on ways to expand testing and contact-tracing to reduce transmission and provide “clear and detailed” guidance to businesses and schools that want to reopen safely. The announcements avoided talk of lockdowns, which are returning in Europe, though that type of response remains an option as health systems try to maintain capacity.
President Trump said he has done all he can to fight the pandemic and put the U.S. on track to secure a vaccine in record time. Pfizer reported positive news in a preliminary analysis of its candidate. The president also is contesting results of the Nov. 3 election, saying many ballots were cast illegally.
Mr. Biden’s appointment of an advisory board signaled he is moving forward despite the tumult and wants to hit the ground running as the pandemic worsens heading into Inauguration Day. The U.S. recorded its 10 millionth infection from the novel coronavirus Monday, and the death toll from COVID-19 climbed to nearly 238,000.
“The bottom line: I will spare no effort to turn this pandemic around once we’re sworn in on January 20th,” Mr. Biden said.
Notably, Mr. Biden tapped Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority who filed a whistleblower complaint accusing Mr. Trump’s team of being too slow to procure masks and other gear in the early days of the pandemic.
Michael Osterholm, the University of Minnesota expert who for years warned that the U.S. was ill-prepared for a pandemic, is on Mr. Biden’s team. So are veterans of past Democratic administrations, including Atul Gawande, a senior adviser to President Clinton, and Ezekiel Emanuel, who helped President Obama with his signature 2010 health care law.
“It’s pretty common to reach back to the previous administration headed by your party to recruit officials,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Kessler, Zeke Emanuel are familiar faces. He also drew on docs who were prominent commentators on CNN and MSNBC — Osterholm — and in friendly publications such as Atul Gawande, who writes for The New Yorker. These are all reputable docs who are also polished speakers and give polished sound bites.”
Mr. Trump relied on himself as the main spokesman for the fight and brought in a rotating cast of civil servants, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield — only to clash with them over their appearances on television and before Congress.
The response was also complicated by lax social distancing or mask protocols on the White House campus. The president, first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, were infected as part of an October cluster of cases at the complex.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson tested positive Monday and David Bossie, who is on Mr. Trump’s post-election legal team, tested positive Sunday after attending the same election night reception as White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who did not wear a mask in the East Room and later tested positive.
Clear communication will be key as Mr. Biden tries to overcome resistance to mask-wearing during the rollout of the vaccine. He said face coverings could save thousands of lives, including those of grocery store shelf-stockers and schoolteachers.
Dr. Emanuel, an oncologist and key Democratic voice on health care, said this week that it will be important to convince people that masks and other measures are gateways to freedom rather than suppressions of rights. He suggested that people in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and even China have “more freedom than we do.”
“It’s just a simple fact,” he said in a panel discussion hosted by the University of California, San Francisco. “Life is normal there. It’s anything but normal here. Changing that narrative so that freedom is associated with a temporary necessity of these measures and laying out for the population what is going to be expected of them, and what we can expect over the timeline, I think is going to be very important to do.”
Mr. Biden’s push for a “national mask mandate” likely will run into opposition, particularly among Republican governors.
William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University, said Dr. Murthy, the former surgeon general, is well-suited for the “diplomatic” efforts a Biden campaign will need to sell its ideas, especially if Republican governors see the situation worsening in their states and are looking for ways to step back from previous positions on masks or other measures.
“He’s very deliberate, he’s very careful, he’s low-key, and he’s very pleasant. I think those are the kind of qualities that will be necessary reaching out,” Dr. Schaffner said. “Beating people about the ears and remonstrating with them is not going to work.”
Mr. Bright directed the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority from 2016 to 2020 but was transferred out of the agency and filed a whistleblower complaint saying the Trump administration did not take the pandemic seriously enough in the early days.
“I think Rick Bright is a choice that makes sense as he led BARDA, an agency that is critical in the development of medical countermeasures such as vaccines and antivirals,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Mr. Biden is emphasizing the need to flex federal procurement powers to acquire equipment such as dividers and protective gear while offering enough support for a vaccine rollout.
Two professors from the University of California, San Francisco, were selected. Robert Rodriguez, professor of emergency medicine, for his research into how the pandemic has impacted the mental health of first responders, and Eric Goosby, an expert in infectious diseases who helped the Obama administration on AIDS policy.
Mr. Biden also named Luciana Borio, a senior fellow for health at the Council on Foreign Relations; Celine Gounder, clinical assistant professor at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine; Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and Loyce Pace, executive director and president of the Global Health Council.
Dr. Schaffner said the members of Mr. Biden’s team tend to support a national approach to addressing the pandemic rather than a “crazy quilt” strategy that varies from state to state.
“Most of the people on that committee who’ve I heard speak about this subject think that’s important,” he said. “Because that’s what’s worked in other countries.”