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Co-chair of Biden’s COVID task force on plans to fight pandemic

This week, President-elect Biden announced a COVID-19 task force to prepare specific plans for the months ahead -- and assess what can be done differently as coronavirus rages across the country. Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, is a co-chair of the group, and he joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the current surge, encouraging vaccine data and how Americans can keep coping.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The problems we are hearing about in Texas and elsewhere are likely to be just as bad, possibly even worse, in a number of states this winter, when president-elect Biden takes office.

    This week, the president-elect announced a COVID task force to prepare specific plans for the months ahead and assess what can be done differently.

    Dr. Vivek Murthy is a co-chair of that task force. He's a former U.S. surgeon general. And he joins us now.

    Dr. Murthy, thank you very much for being with us.

    We have just heard about the stresses they are under in Texas, extraordinary measures they are taking. What will president-elect Biden be able to do as soon as he takes office to curb this surging pandemic?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, thanks Judy. It's good to be with you.

    And the situation in the country is really dire right now. We have cases that are exploding. We have hospitals that are filling up. We have a death toll that's, unfortunately, marching upward. And it's imperative we act immediately.

    Vice — president-elect Biden has put together a series of plans when he was running for office that laid out how he would respond. And the part of the job of the committee, the group that he's put together on COVID that I'm a part of is to take these plans and put a finer point on them, to, in fact, use the latest science to inform them.

    But I can tell you what they will generally center around. They will center around some basic principles that involve stopping the spread of the virus, reopening safely, and protecting the hardest-hit populations, with an eye toward rebuilding public trust as a foundation for this approach.

    The way that we're going to do this is, we're going to have to focus on a number of components, including expanding testing capacity, so that we can do surveillance and diagnostic testing. We're going to have to manufacture enough PPE, or protective equipment, so our nurses and doctors in hospitals don't run out of masks.

    We're going to need a solid plan for vaccine distributions. We are going to need to encourage the public to use masks because they work to prevent this spread.

    But, above all, Judy, we're going to have to rebuild public trust by communicating honestly, by leading with science, and by ultimately delivering results.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A number of things that I want to ask you about.

    But, first, I want to pose — repeat what President Trump said just moments ago at the White House. He said he has no plans while he's in office to impose a national shutdown. He said, I don't know what the next president, whoever it is, suggesting it could be Mr. Biden, will do.

    Can you rule out a national shutdown by the Biden administration?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    I actually think that we should be thinking about this in a slightly different way than we did in the spring.

    In the spring, the talk was about shutting down or not. But we have learned a lot since the spring about how this virus spreads and about how to reduce spread. And what that's allowed us to do is really to imagine a model that's more like a dial that you turn up and down, in terms of increasing restrictions and decreasing restrictions, based on how you're doing.

    And those measures need to be specific, but they also need to be targeted. And what you see happening in New York City right now is, they're actually targeting down to the zip code level, and determining what measures need to be implemented on that zip code level, instead of saying, let's just shut down everything in a city.

    And so that's the approach that we have to take. The goal here is to shut down the virus, so that we can, in fact, open up society, especially our schools, because we know the cost of closing them down is extraordinarily high.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But how is that different from what's already been tried in this country, where different cities, different states have handled it locality by locality? It's the way Europe has handled it. And now Europe is having to go to a shutdown.

    I mean, what gives you confidence that this approach will work?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, I'll say first that we have to approach this pandemic and all pandemics with humility.

    We are learning each and every day about this virus. So, we can never say 100 percent something's going to work.

    But here's why I think that we can, in fact, do better down the line. One is because you do see localities and states actually developing their own alert systems that tell them when to pull the trigger, if you will, on different precautionary measures.

    But there's confusion that we're hearing often from governors and from mayors. What they want is actually a national system of alert levels that they can tinker with and tailor a bit on their own, but one that gives them guidance.

    But the other challenge we have, Judy, is that it's been tough for a lot of people to stick to this guidance. And I understand why.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you about a vaccine.

    As you know, announcement from Pfizer this week that they have something they think's very effective. With FDA approval, they are saying they could distribute millions of doses in — we were hearing it again at the White House just now — in December, more in January.

    Are you — do you have confidence that the Trump administration will handle this vaccine distribution fairly and correctly?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, we certainly hope that they will do a good job in getting the vaccine out quickly, fairly, equitably.

    But the truth is, this is going to take more than just a couple of months. First of all, we don't have a vaccine that has received authorization yet. We had data that was issued earlier this week from Pfizer about their candidate, showing that it was, in fact, quite promising.

    But we have got to still wait for them to submit that vaccine for authorization. We have got to wait for the FDA to review the data. And once that happens, then we can start down the process of actually distributing this vaccine.

    But that is a process that is going to take months. And that's why it's going to be very important for president-elect Biden and his team to do what we have been doing, which is to build those plans and to be ready to execute the distribution of a virus (sic) on day one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But rough timetable, though, do you think most Americans will be able to get the vaccine in the spring?

    Dr. Fauci threw out late April the other day as a date. Does that sound reasonable to you that more than front-line workers and more than the most vulnerable will be able to get it in the spring?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, I will tell you this, Judy. We don't know yet what the exact time frame will be.

    And part of the reason is, it depends in part on when the vaccine is ultimately approved. It depends in part on the logistics of distribution, which means not just getting it to the states, but all of the downstream processes after that, and ensuring that the doctor's offices, hospitals and other entities are ready to actually deliver that vaccine.

    Our hope, optimistically, is that, by the spring, we can start getting it beyond the first tier of individuals, which would be health care workers and people in congregate settings, like nursing homes. But that's the best — a best estimate.

    I think we should be prepared for the fact that it may take the better part of 2021 for us to get the vaccine to everyone in the country, and potentially beyond that, depending on how this process goes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's — and I wanted to ask you about that, because many Americans are growing weary of this, as you said a moment ago.

    How do you inspire, encourage, urge Americans, for their own sake, for their family members and loved ones' sake, to continue to take these measures that they should take for the health and safety of all of us?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Judy, I'm glad you asked that question, because, look, I think all of us are having a hard time right now with where we are in this pandemic.

    It doesn't matter whether you are part of a big family or you're living on your own. It doesn't matter if you're wealthy or not so wealthy. All of us have had our lives turned upside down in some way, although many of us have struggled more than others.

    And I think, in this moment, as hard and as fatigued as people are, I think what's important for us to realize is that there is hope around the corner. We do have good data from the first vaccine candidate. And, likely, we will have more vaccine candidates that turn up promising data in the months ahead.

    We have treatments that are starting to come onto the scene, which aren't game-changers yet, but they do help to reduce complications from this virus. And we are getting better at figuring out how to prevent the spread of this virus.

    So, we are learning more. We are going to be able to overcome this pandemic. But it's just going to take us a little bit more time. So, we have got to lean on each other and support one another. There is no shame in feeling fatigued or feeling distraught about where we are.

    A lot of us are feeling that. And we have got to lean on each other and look out for each other during this very difficult time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is co-chair of president-elect Biden's Coronavirus Task Force, thank you.

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Thanks so much, Judy.

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