The Trump administration’s refusal to authorize a presidential transition is interfering with President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for a rapid scale-up of the federal coronavirus response, leaving the incoming administration locked out of key health agencies amid the spiraling pandemic.
In addition to its traditional transition team for the Health and Human Services Department, the Biden administration has discussed forming a special transition squad to coordinate virus response work across the government. Both groups, Biden believes, are key to organizing a national strategy for testing and distributing crucial supplies during what the president-elect has predicted will be a “dark winter” for the nation, according to two people familiar with the planning.
But GSA Administrator Emily Murphy’s failure to approve a transition process — as President Donald Trump refuses to concede the election — has prevented the Biden forces from deploying dozens of health officials and blocked them from accessing information and resources critical to combating the crisis.
“Here we have a group and a new administration that has the right ideas, the things we should’ve been doing right along, and nothing’s happening,” said Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and a health expert in touch with Biden transition officials. “Who knows where we’re going to be by Jan. 21, but right now it doesn’t have a good look to it.”
Biden’s HHS transition team is not yet allowed to have any contact with its agencies, including with officials at the center of the pandemic response like infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci and HHS testing czar Brett Giroir. It’s also barred from accessing nonpublic information or setting up government offices, limiting the new administration’s ability to get a full picture of the public health crisis that it’ll take responsibility for in just over two months.
The separate coronavirus-specific squad has been held up as well, over concerns about how to structure it ahead of the formal start of the transition process and how willing the Trump administration will be to cooperate.
“The problem is, until [the election] is certified there are no conversations at all. Once it’s certified, it then becomes a lot easier,” one person familiar with the discussions said. “What you’d love to do is get people like [Giroir] and [White House task force coordinator Deborah Birx] and everybody in the same room at the same time from all over the place to talk.”
A spokesperson for the Biden transition did not respond to a request for comment. Biden during an event on Tuesday downplayed the impact of the certification delay on its transition efforts.
Nonetheless, the Biden transition now has fewer than 70 days to prepare a massive expansion of the government’s Covid-19 efforts — and little idea when it’ll be able to get started in full. The delayed start could ultimately set the Biden transition teams back by several days or weeks, forcing them to turn an already-fraught process into an all-out sprint ahead of Inauguration Day.
At HHS, the incoming administration tapped 30 health experts to canvass the department and its sprawling agencies, where they’ll be charged with coordinating work with career officials and laying the groundwork for a health agenda likely to dominate Biden’s first days in office. That group includes public health experts like Johns Hopkins professor Tom Inglesby, Trust for America’s Health CEO John Auerbach and Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw disaster response in the Obama administration.
Who would lead Biden’s proposed inter-agency task force – or what form it would take — remains in question. The Biden team has internally discussed ways to bring together transition officials from across agencies to discuss how to tackle coronavirus-specific challenges, in hopes of assembling the kind of comprehensive response that Democrats have long criticized Trump for failing to lead.
But both groups are at a standstill, with the transition hamstrung by rules requiring the GSA to formally certify Biden as president-elect before it can begin its work — a determination Murphy has yet to make as the Trump campaign pursues a series of legal challenges.
So far, Trump has shown little openness to speeding the transition. And in some parts of the health department, officials said reports that the White House will fire anyone for merely looking for a new job has had a “chilling effect” on any talk of transition preparations.
“There’s nobody — not a soul — who’s discussing transition right now,” a senior Trump administration official said.
Amid the standoff, the Biden administration’s pandemic to-do list has only grown. The rate of daily coronavirus cases are only expected to increase from the current record levels of more than 100,000 per day as colder weather forces more of the country inside — with a spike in deaths likely not far behind. Hospitalizations are at their worst point since mid-July, raising fresh concerns about the nation’s supply of protective equipment.
Biden transition officials working on the pandemic response are also expected to prioritize a major ramp-up in testing. Plans to shore up distribution planning for Covid-19 treatments and an eventual vaccine took on new urgency this week, after Pfizer announced it has a viable shot and the FDA authorized a new monoclonal antibody treatment for emergency use.
With the clock ticking on the transition, that’s a daunting set of challenges that will only become more difficult to tackle with every day that goes by.
“Biden will be ready to go with his Covid plans the second he gets into office,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “What I’m most worried about is the two months until that happens.”
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