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WASHINGTON — A member of President-elect Joe Biden’s Covid-19 task force is advocating for federal scientists — rather than high-ranking political appointees — to take on the daily work of informing the public about the pandemic beginning in January.

Celine Gounder, a task force member and veteran infectious diseases specialist, specifically highlighted two veteran Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists who appeared at public briefings early in the pandemic but largely disappeared from public view in the spring. One, Nancy Messonnier, infamously enraged President Trump when she forecast that Covid-19 would cause “severe” disruptions to American life.

“I personally would love it if Anne Schuchat and Nancy Messonnier were the ones we were hearing from every day at daily CDC briefings,” Gounder told STAT. “It may not be exciting in a sexy TV way, but it’s exciting to me that this is a return to science.”

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Gounder’s push is a marked shift from the current administration’s messaging strategy. Trump has largely sidelined career scientists in favor of higher-ranking officials including Vice President Mike Pence and health secretary Alex Azar, and now has eschewed briefings altogether.

Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, has run the agency in an acting capacity on numerous occasions. Both Schuchat and Messonnier, who directs the CDC’s immunizations and respiratory diseases department, were a fixture at press briefings in early 2020 before Messonnier’s warning about the pandemic’s impact sent markets tumbling.

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Gounder’s remarks echo pledges during the campaign from Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general and one of the Biden task force’s three co-chairs, as well Biden’s campaign-trail pledge to “listen to the scientists.”

Major figures outside governments have also specifically cited Messonnier as an emblem of the federal government’s largely failed pandemic response. In an interview at the STAT Summit on Tuesday, Bill Gates said Messonnier “should have been the visible face” of the agency throughout the pandemic, arguing “the CDC was not allowed to do its job.”

Wednesday evening, the CDC announced it would hold its first press briefing in months. While the briefing will be conducted by two career agency scientists, neither Messonier nor Schuchat is scheduled to speak. Since the late-February controversy, Messonnier has continued in her CDC role and has played a substantial role in Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine initiative.

Biden’s broader coronavirus messaging strategy will require more finesse than simply elevating career scientists. Gounder and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale physician and researcher who is one of the Biden task force’s three co-chairs, said Biden will need help from figures outside the government — including many who did not support Biden prior to his election.

The panel in recent weeks has acknowledged the need to recruit entertainers, religious leaders, and even conservative politicians to impress upon Americans the need to wear face coverings, practice social distancing, and seek a Covid-19 vaccine once one is available.

That search, Gounder said, isn’t merely a matter of finding “the smartest person in the room,” but rather, finding someone who Americans trust on a deeper, emotional level.

“That may not be me, that may not be Dr. Fauci, that may not be Vivek [Murthy] or Atul Gawande,” she said, referencing the renowned government immunologist and two fellow members of the Biden task force. “I don’t think [the whole communications effort] can be us, because we simply are not going to be the right people for every American.”

The question of who, if anyone, Biden can recruit to convince millions of Americans to heighten their pandemic precautions has taken on additional urgency in the two weeks since Election Day. The U.S. in recent days has repeatedly broken records for new Covid-19 cases in a single day. Several cities across the country have little or no remaining hospital capacity, and death rates have begun to climb in the wake of the increased infection levels.

Biden has warned that President Trump’s refusal to concede the result of the Nov. 3 election could have dire consequences for the federal government’s ability to distribute vaccines, treatments, and protective gear for medical workers once he takes office on Jan. 20.

Public messaging, however, is one of the few areas that Biden’s team can tackle head-on even without the Trump administration’s cooperation. Gounder, a veteran of the Ebola epidemic, said Biden’s advisers would likely lean on political figures, entertainers, and religious leaders to help convince individual communities to buy into basic public health measures like mask use and social distancing.

“In Guinea, in West Africa, during Ebola, we spent a lot of time working with imams there who were not necessarily huge fans of the U.S. government,” Gounder said. “But doing something on behalf of their congregation, on behalf of their community, was something they cared about. Empowering them to do that really worked. And I think there might be some parallels here, where we might not be on the same political team, but we all care about these communities. I think we can at least come together on that.”

As case levels continue to skyrocket, downplaying Covid-19 will become an increasingly untenable position, asserted Nunez-Smith, the task force co-chair..

“The narrative has shifted for many, many people who have been skeptical of the conversations about how this is a real virus, it’s very dangerous, that there are things we can do to mitigate it,” she told STAT. “It is getting harder and harder to find a person who doesn’t know someone who has been really impacted and affected by Covid-19.”

Like Biden, both Gounder and Nunez-Smith warned that the Trump administration’s refusal to facilitate an orderly transition has already damaged the Biden team’s ability to access data regarding vaccine manufacturing, hospital capacity, and other key public health metrics.

Despite the obstacles, however, both painted an optimistic picture of the Biden administration’s early days, which are likely to include a bolstered role for career staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a coordinated effort to encourage Americans to seek Covid-19 vaccinations, if they’re available.

Restoring trust in vaccine safety will likely be a major determinant in the country’s ability to effectively contain the virus in 2021. But amid Trump’s lofty promises of an Election Day vaccine approval and Democrats’ warnings of political interference at the Food and Drug Administration, interest in seeking a vaccine has plummeted.

One recent survey, however, bodes well for Americans’ interest in vaccines under development by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a STAT-Harris Poll survey released Nov. 10 said they would seek to receive a vaccine that reduced their risk of contracting Covid-19 by 75% or more; recently released data shows that both vaccine candidates reduce infection rates by at over 90%.

Amid the controversy, a number of states, including New York and California, took the rare step of forming independent vaccine safety advisory boards, citing concerns about political interference at the FDA. So, too, did the National Medical Association, a group representing Black doctors, citing the medical field’s past abuses of people of color and concerns about adequate diversity in clinical trial populations.

Nunez-Smith, whose expertise and research portfolio lies in health equity and racial health disparities, stopped short of endorsing the states’ and NMA’s independent vaccine-review efforts. But she acknowledged ongoing mistrust for the federal government as well as continued reluctance from communities of color to receive vaccines that, by the federal government’s own branding, were developed at “warp speed.”

“People need the reassurance that there aren’t safety and efficacy steps skipped,” Nunez-Smith said. “I am not endorsing parallel review processes. I’m endorsing the transparency of the review processes that we have in existence in our federal government. People need to be able to look and see and ask questions and get answers, and be reassured. There’s absolutely the right to that.”

  • Lets not use federal scientist but rather let use people who really knows the facts and honest to the public to be the mouthpiece. Look at Fauci, Brix, and the surgeon general who told us not to wear mask early on.

  • Back in March, I was conversing with an old man in a checkout line in a grocery store. He was looking for wipes that he can use as sanitizer as it was hard to find hand sanitizer at that time. I advised him that he needs to wear a mask to. He said that the government said you don’t needs to wear a mask. Look at home much damage Fauci, Brix, and the surgeon general cause in advising people to wash and sanitize their hand but one does not gave to wear a mask if they are asymptomatic.

    I do not need people like Fauci, Brix, and the surgeon general telling me what to do. Listening to the doctors who works who was saying it was airborne back in Feb is way more useful that listening to this three fools.

    They are one of the reason why the coronavirus is widespread in the US. We can add the CDC blunders to that too.

    I hope Biden replace Fauci and the surgeon general. They know you have to wear a mask but they give a opposite message to the public. If they did not realized that you have to wear a mask back in March when doctors are saying it is airborne then the more they did to be remove from any government position. They are either lying to the public or plain incompetent. Sadly at the cost of many lives.

    • It’s called science. We started out knowing very little and knowledge and understanding grew as we did research. Simple as that. Please be safe.

    • Emily, it seems you did not read my comment clearly. When they are saying that asymptomatic people do not need to wear mask, doctors in Asia already says that it is airborne.

      Please do not use the word “science” as an excuse for telling lies. If I knew that mask is mandatory to protect myself from information I gathered from the doctors interview who wear working on covid19, why would other people not know when the information is out there.

      Do not use “science” as a pathetic excuse for ignorance.

  • By all means, let’s put the white jacketed stethoscope wearing scientists in charge. But which group of scientists? The ones clamoring foe a job in the Harris-Biden maybe administration or the ones who signed the Great Barrington Declaration? https://gbdeclaration.org/

    So confusing.

  • well, well, well.

    Look at the message that Brix, Fauci, the surgeon general are promoting in the early stage of the US covid19 pandemic. They were saying you need to keep on sanitizing your hand but you don’t need to wear mask if you don’t have symptoms. How stupid was that when doctors in Asia were already saying it was airborne, with respiratory system and eyes as the point of entry.

    So, no. I will do my own research instead of putting my lives in the hand of this incompetent “scientists”, especially Fauci who seems addicted to his new found fame. And Brix who looks like she is going to a party on the daily coronavirus task force presscon. How misleading did the surgeon general sound when he when on TV telling people they don’t need to wear mask if they are asymptomatic. How many lives did this fools cause.

    I had to advised on old man in a grocery store back in March that he needs to wear a mask and don’t believe the message from the government that you don’t need to wear a mask. I hope he had taken my advised.

    This brainwashing that you need to keep you hand sanitized but don’t need to wear is hard to reverse later on. This three people had done a great damage about mask wearing that is hard to reverse.

    I saw people sanitizing their hand but don’t care about the mask. It is painful to look at people more obsessed at keeping their hand clean than making sure this nose and mouth are covered properly by mask that can protect them from covid. This is a good example of how hard it is to reverse a brainwash person.

  • To have to sink to the level of communication like in West-African countries in order to convince people (or: clobber some common sense into them) is the ultimate joke on the so-called Greatest Nation in the World. This is so totally laughable, were it not for the dire need to elicit public compliance to very basic behaviour in order to not become a third-world country. That this is needed in America is a real embarassment, for the nation, and towards the whole world that knows it is precipitated by a leader who has destroyed public trust in actually really proven credible honorable and globally respected health entities. Biden’s plate is heavier loaded – with the garbage that now needs to be cleaned up.

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