President Donald Trump appears set to spend his remaining weeks in office pushing lies about election fraud, even as the coronavirus pandemic surges out of control.
What a picture this presents to the world: an outgoing leader who refuses to give up power, even as he fails to confront surging COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, including in so-called red states. Just in the past week, roughly one in every 441 Americans has tested positive for the virus.
Trump’s behavior presents a stunning picture to the world of a decaying democracy — unable to handle elections or the virus. This disarray could tempt America’s adversaries to seek advantage during this transition period. And don’t kid yourself that Pfizer’s preliminary announcement of an effective vaccine will resolve the pandemic any time soon.
So hats off to President-elect Joe Biden for stepping up immediately on this critical issue, despite Trump’s churlish orders to his administration not to cooperate with Biden during the transition period.
In order to prepare for speedy action as soon as he takes office, Biden has already named a coronavirus task force of top medical experts, including Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
I interviewed Emanuel extensively last month and he laid out how the virus could be confronted — by a president who puts Americans first.
When I asked Emanuel what advice he would give Biden if he won, the distinguished public health expert laid out a four-point strategy:
1. A clear communications strategy on COVID-19, embodied by the president.
This as opposed to the constantly conflicting messages between Trump and the serious scientists on his coronavirus team.
“You need everyone in government on one page,” Emanuel told me, “and you need to repeat the message often.” Biden already reinforces that message, he said, “by wearing a mask and not having big crowds.” And, Emanuel added, the message should be depoliticized, with scientists and public health officials in the foreground.
Given how Trump has turned masks and distancing into a red-blue war, I’d imagine that sports and entertainment stars who have mass appeal might help in getting the message out.
2. A management strategy, led by the Biden task force.
“You need coordination at the center, at the White House, when you are coordinating many government agencies and private companies,” said Emanuel. So he recommends sub task forces for key areas, from testing to distribution of vaccines.
Had you had that kind of coordination, including with labs at leading universities, the United States could have come up with a fast, quick test. And, if Trump had made better use of the Defense Production Act, such a test could have been distributed widely, avoiding the struggle America has had with shortages of components and tests that take days to return results. The United States is still testing way below the optimum.
Also vital, says Emanuel, is coordination between states — helped by the White House.
So is an upgrade in technology so scientists can track data on outbreaks — and ultimately know who has been vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, if eventually approved, will require two shots, and need to be stored at approximately 94 degrees below zero, which will make distribution and monitoring a staggering task.
3. Funding from Congress.
“You need to work with Congress to fund these initiatives,” Emanuel says, “so the public can afford to get tested and is not tempted to break public health regulations.”
4. Build public trust.
“Be transparent,” is Emanuel’s advice, with data, the advisory committees and the opinions of top scientists. And “embrace input from various minority physicians and commissions” to offset long-standing suspicions about vaccines.
Of course, building trust in an age of uber-partisanship (when Trump and Fox News will no doubt still be distributing falsehoods from the sidelines) will be a Sisyphean task.
The president and his cabinet should all take the vaccine, says Emanuel, and work with the medical and nursing community and other groups the public trusts “to convince hesitant people (about vaccines). You have to get influencers to lend their names.”
If Trump embraced Biden’s bipartisan approach, and desire to work with all governors and mayors — red or blue — the country could start immediately on countering the virus surge. But Trump’s refusal to work with the president-elect guarantees that tens more thousands will die before Jan. 20 — when America will finally install a president who puts America First not Trump First.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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