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Biden Becomes President A Year After 1st Confirmed U.S. COVID-19 Case

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The night before their inauguration, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stood near the Lincoln Memorial and marked more than 400,000 people killed by coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: And for many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.

INSKEEP: Today, the Biden administration takes responsibility for fighting the pandemic. We've called Dr. Celine Gounder, who was a member of the president-elect's COVID advisory board and also a clinical assistant professor at New York University. Good morning.

CELINE GOUNDER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What changes in the approach to the pandemic will the public see right away?

GOUNDER: I think one important key word here is partnership - partnership between the federal government, state, local, territorial and tribal governments and public health departments, as well as primary care providers on the ground and pharmacies. Unfortunately, the federal government has been largely AWOL on much of the response. The Operation Warp Speed plan was really just a plan to address market failures in vaccine research and development. But once those vaccine doses were manufactured - are manufactured, there hasn't been much of a federal plan. And so partnership is going to be what we're going to see changing in a big way.

INSKEEP: Well, let me follow up on the notion of partnership when it comes to masks. We are aware that the president-elect, soon after taking office today, is going to take executive action to require masks and social distancing in all federal buildings and by federal employees and contractors. That's a lot of buildings and a lot of places, but of course, not nearly the whole country. Do you think this administration is going to be any more successful in getting states and cities to agree on some kind of standard for masking?

GOUNDER: I don't know if it necessarily even needs to be mandated, Steve. I think the president-elect, soon-to-be president, has said he is asking Americans to wear masks for the first hundred days of his office. It's sort of how Americans are being asked to pitch in while we focus on getting 100 million doses of vaccines into arms in those first 100 days.

INSKEEP: Do you think that just being directly asked by a president who clearly believes in masks is going to make a significant difference?

GOUNDER: I think it depends on how the president-elect brings people together. I think if he makes people - if he helps people feel like, look; we're all in this together - where he's bridging divides, has conciliatory tone in the way he is speaking to Americans, instead of driving a wedge into our divides, I do think that there is the potential for more people to adopt this.

INSKEEP: Have you had discussions about, you know, how do we approach, how do you approach, how do you talk to, communicate with, people who find the masks an imposition or buy into conspiracy theories or find it creeping socialism? There are clearly millions of people who are buying into this sort of thing, and you as an administration need to communicate with them. How much discussion have you had about that?

GOUNDER: Yeah, I mean, it's almost become a cliche, this idea of trusted messengers, but it's really an effective one, where sometimes it's not us, sometimes it's not Dr. Fauci or the director of the CDC, who will soon be Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who will be the most effective messenger. I think you really need to draw upon people at the local level. It might be people's family doctors, or it could be the local police chief or the school superintendent or a faith leader. But really, working with people who are embedded in communities, who are trusted, giving them the information, bringing them on board and having them be the ones messaging about these things.

INSKEEP: Dr. Gounder, if you can get us a little bit into the distribution of vaccines as well. You were critical just now of Operation Warp Speed, which was the effort to develop vaccines. Now some vaccines are available, and the president-elect has promised 100 million shots in a 100 days. How can you improve distribution of the vaccine so that that happens?

GOUNDER: Well, we've got to massively increase the number of places where people can access vaccine. So that means working with local pharmacies where many of us pick up our prescription drugs or do our shopping. That means standing up huge mass vaccination centers. And that's not just the Dodger Stadium and Fenway Parks, but that's also looking at community vaccination centers, especially in the hardest-hit, hardest-to-reach communities. It means working with local primary care doctors, including federally qualified health centers, that do work with underserved and vulnerable populations and, finally, mobile vaccine units to rural parts of the country.

INSKEEP: When you look at this daunting challenge, do you look at that 100 million shots in 100 days and say to yourself, as a professional, I hope this happens or this is going to happen?

GOUNDER: Look - it's a big task that's before us. But with 4,000 Americans dying per day from coronavirus currently, it's simply - we simply have no other choice.

INSKEEP: Dr. Gounder, thank you very much for the time. Really appreciate it.

GOUNDER: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Dr. Celine Gounder is among the advisers to President-elect Joe Biden on COVID and is also at New York University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.