When Julie Graves, a family medicine doctor at Nurx, a women’s health telemedicine company, first looked at President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force, she felt a sense of relief. A former adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health who had worked with Houston health officials on the Ebola preparedness effort, she knew she could trust the people on that list. As she quickly ran through a few names on Biden’s task force, she explained what they would bring to the table in battling the worst public health crisis in modern American history. “I am really happy with who we got and their expertise,” she says.
Graves was especially glad to see Rick Bright, former director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), among Biden’s picks because the agency would be tasked with strategic planning for vaccine stockpiling and distribution as well as deciding who gets immunized at which specific time period. “We need BARDA’s infrastructure for this effort,” Graves says. Meanwhile, Zeke Emanuel, professor of medical ethics and health policy and a former advisor to the Obama administration, would weigh in on the ethics of this effort, she adds.
Graves was also pleased that Rebecca Katz, professor and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, was named to be the team’s advisor. Katz develops mathematical models to foresee outcomes of certain actions related to the pandemic, such as doctors or the government investing in one type of medication or technology versus another. “Her models can show the statistical likelihood of what would happen,” Graves explains. “Her skill is something that the Trump administration has been really missing on.”
Across the board, physicians expect Biden’s administration to communicate COVID-19 facts to the public in a more consistent and scientifically solid manner. The country also needs great communicators to present complex medical facts to people in a language they can understand. Since the start of the pandemic in March, there has been so much misinformation and misrepresentation of facts that people just don’t know what to believe, says Maryal Concepcion, a family physician at the Adventist Health clinic in Arnold, California. It will take excellent communication skills to break through the layers of nonsensical myths like injecting bleach or killing the virus in the sun, she adds. Atul Gawande, professor of surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, and Vivek H. Murthy, who was surgeon general during the Obama administration, are both well poised to be on the president’s coronavirus task force. “When you have people like Atul Gawande who can communicate with people, I can foresee a better way of reaching out to the public.”
These physicians, Graves agrees, really know how to communicate nontrivial medical topics to the public. And by being physicians, Gawande and Vivek would also understand the challenges the country faces from the anti-vaxxer crowd.
Biden’s crew also plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to rectify the shortage of PPE and other medical supplies crucial to battling the pandemic. The Trump administration has been inconsistent about using this measure. Although President Trump had invoked the act during the pandemic, he also criticized it as anti-business and had been reluctant to use it in March and also later in summer. The new administration is expected to be far less hesitant about using this powerful political tool when necessary.
Paul Williams, a veteran, ophthalmologist and senior strategic advisor for healthcare initiatives at Vision Source, believes that having the right equipment manufactured and distributed to those who need it at that moment is key, but it hasn’t been done right. “We still have healthcare providers who are reusing masks and don’t have shoe covers, so we are putting these people at risk,” Williams says — and the new administration is keen on fixing that problem. “Right out of the gate, one thing they mentioned was the Defense Production Act.” Plus, the military has resources that can supplement our strained healthcare system, Williams adds: “The military infrastructure is designed to put the right thing in the right place at the right time, from production to warehousing to distribution.”
Further, it is encouraging that the task force is diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and backgrounds, doctors say. COVID-19 has disproportionally affected communities of color and other minorities. These communities often live in industrial areas or next to highways, breathing a more polluted air, which makes them more susceptible to respiratory diseases. The percentage of uninsured or underinsured people is also higher among these populations. And many just don’t have a lot of faith in the healthcare system or are afraid to be stuck with the bills, so they sometimes avoid seeking help until it becomes life threatening. That’s why it is important that the panel includes experts of varied cultural backgrounds and knowledge. “When we have populations that are disproportionally affected, it’s important that those populations see someone on the task force that looks like them,” Williams says. Having representatives of similar backgrounds on the task force would help the underserved communities build that trust.
A diverse group of experts also brings a broader range of knowledge to the table. “When I look at this panel, I see a nice distribution of people with respect to their expertise — they have government experience, private sector experience, and there are also practicing physicians,” Graves says. “I am really happy we got them.”
But perhaps the most telling comment came from New Jersey family physician Linda Girgis, who is also the editor-in-chief of Physician’s Weekly. “The current administration is ignoring a lot of facts, and I’ve never seen this before in my entire life,” she puts it plainly. “I think the new administration will take more medical advice and more scientific advice, and it gives me a lot of hope.”