In first White House virus briefing, Biden says he’s ‘bringing back the pros’

Coronavirus

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden is tapping the nation’s top scientists and public health experts to regularly brief the American public about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 425,000 Americans.

Administration experts will host briefings three times a week on the state of the outbreak, efforts to control it and the race to deliver vaccines and therapeutics to end it. The Trump administration ended the practice of regular scientific briefings early on in the pandemic. The first briefing was held Wednesday.

“We’re bringing back the pros to talk about COVID in an unvarnished way,” Biden told reporters Tuesday. “Any questions you have, that’s how we’ll handle them because we’re letting science speak again.”

The new briefings, beginning just a week into his tenure, are part of Biden’s attempt to build public confidence in institutions, particularly the federal government, with a commitment to share the bad news with the good.

“I’ll always level with you about the state of affairs,” he said Tuesday, repeating a central pledge of his inaugural address.

Wednesday’s briefing was conducted virtually, rather than in person at the White House, to allow for questions from health journalists and to maintain a set timing no matter the situation in the West Wing. But it was not without technical glitches.

It featured Jeff Zients, the Biden administration’s coordinator for pandemic response; his deputy, Andy Slavitt; Fauci; Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the chair of Biden’s COVID-19 equality task force; and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC.

“The White House respects and will follow the science, and the scientists will speak independently,” said Slavitt.

Zients said Wednesday that the Biden administration was examining additional ways of speeding vaccine production, a day after the president announced the U.S. plans to have delivered enough doses for 300 million Americans by the end of summer.

He added that the federal Department of Health and Human Services acted Wednesday to make more professionals available to administer vaccinations. The government will authorize nurses and doctors who have retired to administer vaccines, and professionals licensed in one state will also be able to give shots in other states. Such measures are fairly standard in health emergencies.

Fauci told reporters there was reason to be concerned about the impact of some coronavirus mutations on vaccines, but that scientists have plenty of options for adjustments to maintain the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

Fauci said there was particular concern about the so-called South African variant, because lab tests have shown that it can diminish the protective power of the vaccines approved to date. He stressed that the level of protection provided was still well within what he called the “cushion” of vaccine effectiveness, but added that the government was working with pharmaceutical companies on potential “booster” shots for the new variants.

Dr. David Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said having briefings from health officials that are “based on serious science” would go a long way toward improving public perceptions of the vaccine.

“There’s a certain amount of vaccine hesitancy, and so educating people about the vaccine, how it works, how safe it is and how it can protect against the disease but also slow transmission is really important,” he said.

The stakes for Biden, whose presidency will be scrutinized on his handling of the pandemic and the largest vaccination campaign in global history, could hardly be higher.

Biden is pushing a weary populace to recommit to social distancing measures and mask-wearing, pointing to scientific models that suggest the practices could save 50,000 lives over the coming months. The administration will also face legal challenges to pandemic related executive actions. He has insisted members of his administration model best behaviors for the country.

In the weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. set records in new cases and reported deaths almost by the day, as many states reimposed costly restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

It comes as government scientists, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and Biden’s chief medical adviser, have been making regular media appearances to share their expertise in television and podcast interviews.

“I think there could be pockets within the country that may be more resistant to listening to evidence, because they may have set their minds on what they’ve heard from the past. But others still can be swayed and educated,” said Hamer in regards to the Biden administration mission of building public trust, adding that some Americans may never come around.

The Associated Press contributed to this article: Reporting by Zeke Miller; Alexandra Jaffe contributing.

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