DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Nearly 10 million people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus, and the spread right now is dangerously high. Over the weekend, new daily cases soared above 126,000. That is the highest yet since the beginning of this pandemic. We know the Trump administration's response, but what is President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 plan? Biden's team is promising to be ready on day one. Let's talk about all of this with NPR's Allison Aubrey, who is here as she is most Mondays. Hi, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: Let's get the big picture first. I mean, how bad is this right now?
AUBREY: You know, the U.S. is averaging more than a hundred new - thousand new cases per day. That is more than a 50% increase, David, just compared to late October, a few weeks back. About a thousand people a day are dying from COVID in the U.S. in recent days. And as hospitalizations rise, there's pressure on hospital systems around the country. Here's former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. He was on CBS yesterday.
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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: We're going to have a record number of hospitalizations this week. Now 56,000 people are hospitalized, 11,000 are in the ICU - these are very big numbers nationally, and it's accelerating very quickly.
AUBREY: And we have not yet hit the peak of this surge, David.
GREENE: Well, and the surge is happening when we're having a leadership transition in our country.
AUBREY: That's right.
GREENE: President-elect Biden, I mean, he spoke about the urgency of this over the weekend in his victory speech. What do you know so far about his team's plan?
AUBREY: Well, the president-elect is well aware of the direction the nation is headed. Here he is.
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JOE BIDEN: Daily cases are skyrocketing, and it's now believed that we could spike - see as many as 200,000 cases in a single day. The death toll is approaching 240,000 lives lost to this virus. That's 240,000 empty chairs at kitchen tables and dining room tables all across America.
AUBREY: And today, the Biden-Harris transition team has just named a group of scientists and experts to a COVID task force. It will be co-chaired by Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, and Dr. David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner.
GREENE: And, I mean, action obviously is important. So is messaging, as we've learned through this public health crisis all this year. But when it comes to January, I mean, what sort of actions might we see here?
AUBREY: Well, for starters, mask mandates nationwide. Biden plans to work with governors and mayors to do this. Biden has said he will direct scientists at the CDC to set evidence-based guidance to help limit outbreaks so that leaders in every state, every community, are operating under the same standards in a much more unified way. He's also calling for significant investments in vaccine distribution, something many governors have been asking for. And he's calling for a major ramp up in testing.
Just before the election, I spoke to Dr. Vivek Murthy, who will co-chair Biden's task force. He says testing is a key priority.
VIVEK MURTHY: He wants to expand our testing capacity to ensure that people have access to reliable and affordable testing when they need it - and not just diagnostic testing, but also screening testing so that we can better open up schools and workplaces and other settings which have remained shut down.
AUBREY: And in addition to testing, David, comes tracing, right? The Biden team envisions the creation of a public health workforce, some 100,000 people or so to carry out contact tracing and other tasks to help communities hit hard by COVID and to get the U.S. where it needs to be with test, trace and isolate, to slow the spread here.
GREENE: I mean, this is like night and day. We had a president - we have a president who, I mean, has basically said that you can't take strong, aggressive action right now because it could damage the economy. I mean, that's the balance that he sees. Now we have Biden, who is basically saying, let's be as aggressive as possible because we have to confront this. I mean, what do public health experts say about such a shift in a moment like this?
AUBREY: You know, I spoke to physician Zeke Emanuel. He has briefed Biden on health policy. He worked with Biden in the past. I spoke to him just before the election. He said, in a Biden administration, expect this huge change - what you just said, David - aimed at a more unified and coordinated approach.
EZEKIEL EMANUEL: You'll see close work with states and the use of federal resources to get all the states singing from the same hymnal so that we don't have what has transpired, which is different states doing different things, and much more detailed guidance that the CDC normally develops for, like, how to open schools, how to open businesses.
AUBREY: We may also see a national pandemic dashboard - so a single site that everyone around the country can check to see the level of spread in their community or zip code.
GREENE: Let me ask you about another possible change. I mean, you have a president coming in, a president-elect, who has talked about expanding access to health insurance. I think about a lot of Americans who've lost their jobs and their employer-sponsored health care plans. I mean, how does Biden plan to address that?
AUBREY: You know, he has proposed the federal government cover 100% of the cost of COBRA coverage for the duration of this crisis. So when people lose their employer-based health insurance, they could stay on that insurance amid the pandemic.
In addition, Biden's folks say he'd like to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, expanding coverage by making people eligible for premium subsidies, more people eligible. During the campaign, Biden also proposed making Medicare coverage available to Americans beginning at age 60 instead of 65. And during the pandemic, several governors, David, have asked Trump to open - reopen the federal Obamacare marketplaces for a special enrollment period. This has not happened. Biden's advisers have told me this is something he could do immediately after his inauguration.
GREENE: I mean, just thinking broadly, our country is so divided right now. I mean, there was this national AP poll of those who voted in the presidential election. Among voters who said the pandemic is totally or mostly under control, 91% voted for President Trump.
AUBREY: That's right.
GREENE: How do you bridge this divide?
AUBREY: You know, I've been talking to public health experts and to Dr. Robert Winn, a physician in Richmond, Va., about this. He's been advising communities on just how to get people to follow evidence-based recommendations. And, basically, this is the deal - in order to get people to change their behavior, you need to do three things.
You need to give them information - say, the information or the studies - to show masks can help save lives. B, they have to have the wherewithal or the means. You need to be able to buy a mask and remember to wear it. And, C, you got to motivate people, and this has been the challenge, David. There are competing values and competing realities when it comes to mask wearing, when people view masks as an infringement of personal freedom. Winn says this has made it harder to manage the pandemic.
ROBERT WINN: We are living in two separate worlds, and I think that that is a symptom of the lack of leadership. When you have mixed messages coming out of the CDC, how can one fault people with alternative facts? So I think Biden offers us an opportunity now for many people to regain trust back in the federal government.
AUBREY: And Biden advisers say that starts by putting scientists first and giving people clear, consistent guidance.
GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you as always.
AUBREY: Thank you, David.
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