Nov 12, 2020 - Health

Biden's Day 1 challenges: The coronavirus

Photo illustration of Joe Biden holding a surgical mask
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The coronavirus is not only a life-or-death crisis that will be waiting for President-elect Joe Biden on Day One. It’s a crisis that will keep getting worse every day, making it harder and harder for a new administration to solve.

The big picture: The virus will not know there’s a new president. It will simply keep spreading, and killing people, until we stop it. The challenge of stopping it will be Biden’s first, most urgent order of business. And it will be incredibly difficult.

The U.S. is on a very bad trajectory, at a high-risk time. The virus will likely continue to spread largely unchecked all winter, right through to Inauguration Day and beyond.

  • As our weekly map shows, new coronavirus infections jumped by 40% over the past week, and the daily average — roughly 119,000 new cases per day — is by far the highest of any point in the pandemic.
  • And even if the pace of new infections slows down at some point, the U.S. has never managed to actually control the virus. 120,000 cases a day is a nightmare, but 60,000 was also considered too many.

Biden will have to manage an enormously complicated behind-the-scenes response, but his biggest challenge will be to get the public to take advantage of that response.

  • His administration will face no greater imperative in its first days than to bring sidelined career officials back into the fold, untangle the Trump administration’s processes and reorient the country’s health agencies, even as it will still be staffing up those agencies.
  • And the complicated logistics of distributing vaccines will likely be ramping up just as the White House changes hands, further raising the stakes for a smooth transition.

The bad news: There won’t be a lot Biden can do right away to turn things around.

  • More testing would help, but testing alone doesn’t control the spread of the virus. Financial aid to make it easier for high-risk people to stay home would also help, but that will be a tough fight in a divided government.
  • What the U.S. needs, most of all, is to start taking the virus seriously and adopting the measures that control its spread.
  • Biden has been clear about his intent to try to lead by example. But in a country where every aspect of the pandemic has already become a partisan flashpoint, and where governors control most of the decisions about what’s open or closed, his hands will be tied.

The good news: The scientists and researchers working on treatments and vaccines are moving with record speed around the world. They’ve already made enormous progress, and will be even further along by early next year.

  • If the early results from Pfizer’s vaccine trial hold, and the rest of the process moves smoothly, the distribution of that vaccine would likely get going early next year and continue to ramp up from there.
  • Hopefully, additional vaccines will also yield promising results and could also become available next spring.

The catch: As Axios has been trying to warn you, a vaccine will not be a silver bullet and will not immediately end the pandemic.

  • Pfizer estimates it will have enough product at the end of this year to vaccinate about 25 million Americans. High-risk groups will get the first doses; it’ll be well into 2021, at the absolute earliest, before the general public starts getting access.
  • It’ll ultimately be the government’s job to manage that process — and to persuade people to get vaccinated, once they have the opportunity.
  • Existing anti-vaccine misinformation, coupled with good-faith questions about such an incredibly fast process, mixed with partisan attitudes toward the virus and the tools to fight it, could make it that much harder to eventually move past this pandemic.

The bottom line: COVID-19 is killing over 800 Americans per day, on average. At that rate, nearly 60,000 people would die between now and Inauguration Day.

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