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Biden: We’ll ‘manage the hell’ out of feds’ COVID response

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Bill Barrow
Associated Press

Wilmington, Del. – President-elect Joe Biden pledged Friday to boost supplies of coronavirus vaccine and set up new vaccination sites to meet his goal of 100 million shots in 100 days. It’s part of a broader COVID strategy that also seeks to straighten out snags in testing and ensure minority communities are not left out.

“Some wonder if we are reaching too far,” Biden said. “Let me be clear, I’m convinced we can get it done.”

The real payoff, Biden said, will come from uniting the nation in a new effort grounded in science.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event at The Queen theater, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Wilmington, Del.

Biden spoke a day after unveiling a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” to confront the virus and provide temporary support for a shaky economy. About $400 billion of the plan is focused on measures aimed at controlling the virus. Those range from mass vaccination centers to more sophisticated scientific analysis of new strains and squads of local health workers to trace the contacts of infected people.

“You have my word: We will manage the hell out of this operation,” Biden declared. He underscored a need for Congress to approve more money and for people to keep following basic precautions, such as wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and frequently washing their hands.

Throughout the plan, there’s a focus on ensuring that minority communities that have borne the brunt of the pandemic are not shortchanged on vaccines and treatments.

A key challenge for Biden and the nation: Vaccines are in too-short supply.

Biden said he would use the Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law, to boost vaccine supplies and work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up 100 vaccination centers around the country by the end of his first month in office.

“Almost a year later, we’re still far from back to normal. The honest truth is this: Things will get worse before they get better,” he said Friday, as U.S. deaths climbed closer to 400,000. The global toll has now reached 2 million.

Biden seconded the Trump administration’s call earlier this week for states to start vaccinating more seniors, reaching those 65 and older as well as younger people with certain health problems. Until now states have been focused on inoculating health care workers, and some are starting to vaccinate people 75 and older. Relatively few are providing shots to people between 65 and 75.

Another carryover from the Trump administration plan: Biden said he intends to mobilize local pharmacies to administer vaccines.

“Is it achievable?” he asked. “It’s a legitimate question to ask. Let me be clear. I’m convinced we can get it done.”

In fact, Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert and emergency physician, said the president-elect should aim higher.

“At this point, mass vaccination is our last and best chance to restoring normalcy,” she said. “There should be no expenses spared in the vaccine rollout. A hundred million in 100 days needs to be seen as only a start.”

As Biden spoke, some governors blasted the Trump administration for what at least one said was “deception” in suggesting earlier this week that a reserve of vaccine doses was ready to ship, augmenting supplies. An administration official said states have still not ordered all of the doses allocated to them, and called it a problem with states’ expectations.

Biden committed to better communication with the states, to avoid surprises about how much vaccine they can expect. His plan calls for the federal government to fully reimburse states that mobilize their National Guards to help distribute vaccines.

His plan comes as a divided nation is in the grip of the pandemic’s most dangerous wave yet. “We remain in a very dark winter,” Biden said.

The political outlook for his rescue legislation remains unclear, although a powerful business lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, welcomed its focus on controlling the pandemic.

“This is not a political issue,” Biden said. “This is about saving lives. I know it’s become a partisan issue, but what a stupid, stupid thing to happen.”

Biden has long held that economic recovery is inextricably to control of the coronavirus.

Under Biden’s multipronged strategy, about $20 billion would be allocated for a more disciplined focus on vaccination, on top of some $8 billion already approved by Congress. Biden has called for setting up mass vaccination centers and sending mobile units to hard-to-reach areas.

On Friday, he announced former FDA chief David Kessler as his chief science officer for the vaccine drive. Kessler has been advising Biden as a co-chair of his advisory board on the coronavirus pandemic. A pediatrician and attorney, he has emphasized a need to ease public concerns about the safety of the vaccines. Confidence in the FDA’s review process is critical.

With the backing of Congress and the expertise of private and government scientists, the Trump administration delivered two highly effective vaccines and more are on the way. Yet a month after the first shots were given, the nation’s vaccination campaign is off to a slow start with about 12.3 million doses administered out of more than 31 million delivered, or 39%.

About 10.6 million individuals have received first or second doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the American Hospital Association estimates that close to 246 million must be vaccinated to reach widespread or “herd” immunity by the summer. Vaccines currently available require two shots to be fully effective.

Biden has called the vaccine rollout “a dismal failure so far.”

“We need to be getting to more than 3 million vaccinations a day, rapidly,” said Wen.

Biden’s plan also would provide $50 billion to expand testing, which is seen as key to reopening most schools by the end of the new administration’s first 100 days. About $130 billion would be allocated to help schools reopen without risking further contagion.

The plan would fund the hiring of 100,000 public health workers, to focus on encouraging people to get vaccinated and on tracing the contacts of those infected with the coronavirus. The Biden administration also plans to launch a public education campaign to overcome doubts.

With the new proposals comes a call to redouble efforts on the basics.

Biden is asking Americans to override their sense of pandemic fatigue and recommit to wearing masks, practicing social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings, particularly larger ones. Experts agree it’s still the surest way to slow the COVID-19 wave.