President-elect Biden’s COVID-19 plan includes national testing strategy, boost in contact tracing

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

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By Michael Stokes – Biden13, CC BY 2.0,

President-elect Biden reportedly plans to announce his COVID-19 task force on Monday, sending Americans a signal that getting the pandemic under control will be his top priority.

Three co-chairs will lead the task force: former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale physician-researcher, according to Axios. The group may also include Ezekiel Emanuel, provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a former health policy adviser to President Obama and Nicole Lurie, a health policy fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and former pandemic preparedness adviser to Obama.

“There are some things he’s going to do right off the bat, especially after the ridiculousness of the last (several days),” Lurie told Stat News. “He will reach out to (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director) Tony Fauci. He will declare his intent to be an active participant in the WHO (World Health Organization) and in the world. And I believe that in very short order, he’ll be in touch with governors and mayors around the country, listening to what it is that they’ll need to pivot this response.”

COVID-19 cases and deaths likely will still be surging when Biden takes office on Jan. 20, so he’ll have a huge task to reverse that trend. As of Nov. 7, there were 132,797 new cases and 236,360 deaths from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Biden’s plan, which he released in early October, includes several strategies that most public health officials have been calling for since the early days of the outbreak. These approaches have worked in other wealthy countries where COVID-19 is more under control.

Biden’s plan includes a national testing strategy, reliance on evidence-based science for public health guidelines, a boost in contact tracing efforts, an increase in the health care workforce, an effort to get people access to health insurance, a ramp-up in production of personal protective equipment and an increase in resources to ensure that an eventual COVID-19 vaccine can be equitably deployed.

“You would see an approach that’s driven by science and by scientists,” physician Vivek Murthy told NPR in October.

Other measures in the Biden plan includes a push to help those who have lost jobs during the pandemic and an effort to reduce health care inequities. Many of those who have died from COVID-19 are disproportionately from Black, Latinx and Native American communities. Biden intends to push for emergency paid leave to enable workers to stay home to care for sick family members and not risk infecting others.

Many of these approaches have been used in wealthy countries like New Zealand, South Korea and Australia, where COVID-19 has remained under control.

One of the quickest pandemic decisions Biden can enact is reengaging the U.S. in global health efforts to combat the virus. The Trump administration informed the World Health Organization – the United Nation’s global health arm ― that the U.S. would withdraw its membership in the organization in 2021. In July, Biden said that he would have the nation rejoin the WHO on the first day of his presidency and he plans to reinstitute a White House office on global health risks.

“Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health,” he said in a tweet.

Still, Biden is likely to face significant challenges in deploying his domestic health policy plans. Many public health experts fear that lingering anger from Trump supporters may hinder the new administration’s efforts to encourage Americans to wear masks, maintain physical distancing guidelines and receive a vaccine when one is ready.

They say the new administration will need to create an aggressive communications strategy to explain why everyone needs to follow public health guidelines. The nation’s premier public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also will need to revamp its image. The agency’s reputation has been battered by the White House’s political interference and reports that it botched the initial COVID-19 testing process, enabling the virus to spread rapidly through the U.S.

“I’m very concerned that large swaths of this country will not only not heed the guidance from a new administration but will openly rebel against the guidance because it’s from this administration,” Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health told Time. “They need to win the hearts and minds of the American public by enlisting the most trusted messengers.”

Congress is likely to still be divided, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, so plans to increase federal funding to public health and provide economic relief may face headwinds.

 

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Experts

  • Ezekiel Emanuel, provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a former health policy adviser to President Obama; contact here.
  • Howard Forman, director of the Yale University School of Public Health’s health care management program; contact here.
  • Vivek Murphy, co-founder of Doctors for American and former surgeon general under President Obama; contact here.
  • Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; contact here.
  • Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: contact here.
  • Carolyn Reynolds, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Health Policy Center; contact here.
  • Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health; contact here.

 

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