Biden zeros in on virus during opening days of transition

WILMINGTON (AP) — President-elect Joe Biden signaled strongly Monday that fighting the raging pandemic will be the immediate priority of his new administration, as the nation surpassed 10 million COVID-19 cases, an abrupt shift from President Donald Trump’s more unworried approach to the virus.

Biden began with a direct appeal to all Americans to wear masks, a departure from Trump, who has mocked Biden and others who make a point of always wearing protective face coverings when nearby people. In an official move, the president-elect formed a coronavirus advisory board dominated by scientists and doctors, while Trump has had a falling-out with the medical experts on his own virus task force.

The swift actions come at a critical moment in the U.S. effort to combat the coronavirus. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced progress with its vaccine trial, helping send financial markets soaring. But surging caseloads, including new infections among leading figures in Trump’s administration, offered a fresh reminder that the nation is still in the grip of the worst pandemic in more than a century.

“The challenge before us right now is still immense and growing, and so is the need for bold action to fight this pandemic,” Biden said after being briefed on the virus. “We are still facing a dark winter.”

He called on Americans to separate politics from the virus and embrace mask-wearing.

“We could save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Not Democratic or Republican lives. American lives,” Biden said. “Please, I implore you, wear a mask.”

Over the past two weeks, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has risen nearly 65%. The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. went from 66,294 on Oct. 25 to 108,736.7 on Sunday. In the past week, one of every 433 Americans was diagnosed with COVID-19, and hospitals in several states are running out of space and staff.

In a statement, Delaware’s senior senator praised the president-elect’s move.

“I think that it is admirable that, on day one, President-elect Biden’s first priority is ensuring that his transition is guided by science as they address this unprecedented public health and economic challenge,” Tom Carper said, noting that the United States makes up a disproportionate share of the world’s COVID-19 deaths.

“By working in partnership with governors and local officials, prioritizing evidence-based guidance, expanding much-needed testing, and investing in vaccine distribution, we can save lives and protect livelihoods. Rather than try to discredit the science, let’s work together to use it to finally get this virus under control,” he added.

Delaware’s COVID-19 totals had been low for months but are now on the upswing again. There were 119 hospitalizations Sunday, the most in five months, and the percentage of people testing positive has reached levels not seen since late May.

The rate of new cases over the past two weeks is defined as significant, according to the Delaware Division of Public Health.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released Friday found Delaware’s stay-at-home order and face covering mandate helped drive down the spread over the spring and summer.

While the First State is still a long way from the late April nadir, experts warn that the pandemic will get worse this winter before it gets better.
Pfizer said Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine may be a remarkable 90% effective, based on early and incomplete test results. The drugmaker said it was on track to file an emergency-use request with regulators later this month.

Throughout his ultimately unsuccessful campaign, Trump insisted the nation was “rounding the corner” on the coronavirus and that a vaccine was imminent even as infection rates grew. The president, who has yet to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory, seized on Pfizer’s announcement and the positive reaction in financial markets.

“STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!” he tweeted.

Vice President Mike Pence was holding a meeting of the White House coronavirus task force Monday. He tweeted that Pfizer’s reported progress was “HUGE NEWS” and suggested it was the result of a “public-private partnership forged” by Trump.

In fact, Pfizer has funded all its own research. It has a contract to sell doses to the U.S. government if a vaccine is approved but has insisted on handling its own shipping.

The White House task force, which includes the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has been diminished in recent months as Trump grew impatient with efforts to slow the virus that were having a deleterious impact on the economy.

A top Trump administration health official delivered much the same message as Biden, although the timing was coincidental and the occasion apolitical.

Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health administration, said that Americans must “double down” on the “3 Ws” — watching their distance from others, wearing masks when that’s not possible and washing their hands frequently. He also said states and local communities must ramp up testing.

The advisory board that Biden announced Monday includes doctors and scientists who have served in previous administrations, many of them experts in public health, vaccines and infectious disease.

It will be led by former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler and Yale University public health care expert Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith.

Rick Bright, a vaccine expert and former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, is also on the board. He had filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was reassigned to a lesser job because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug pushed by Trump as a COVID-19 treatment.

Other members include Dr. Luciana Borio, who had senior leadership positions at the FDA and National Security Council during the Obama and Trump administrations; Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who served as a special adviser for health policy in the Obama administration; Dr. Atul Gawande, a senior adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration and medical writer; and Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who served as an adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson during the George W. Bush administration.

Public health officials warn that the nation could be entering the worst stretch yet for COVID-19, as winter sets in and the holiday season approaches, increasing the risk of rapid transmission as Americans travel, shop and celebrate with loved ones.

“The next two months are going to be rough, difficult ones,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious-disease specialist and department chairman at the Yale School of Public Health. “We could see another 100,000 deaths by January.”

Biden pledged during the campaign to make testing free and widely available, to hire thousands of health workers to help implement contact-tracing programs and to instruct the CDC to provide clear, expert advice.

There’s hope in the wider medical community that a Biden presidency will help restore U.S. leadership on global public health challenges, including the development and distribution of a vaccine when it becomes available.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist of the World Health Organization, said she was more optimistic that a Biden administration would join Covax, a WHO-led project aimed to help deploy vaccines to the neediest people worldwide, whether they live in rich or poor countries.

“Everyone recognizes that for a pandemic, you cannot have a country-by-country approach. You need a global approach,” Swaminathan said.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.