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“There Is No Communication, No Emails, Nobody Called”: How the Delayed Transition Kneecapped Biden’s COVID Task Force

5 min read
President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force has waited weeks in a postelection cone of silence, unable to talk to government counterparts while pandemic cases skyrocket, as a previously obscure bureaucrat at the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, essentially held vaccine-distribution planning hostage. She refused to take the technical step of “ascertaining” a Biden win, which…
“There Is No Communication, No Emails, Nobody Called”: How the Delayed Transition Kneecapped Biden’s COVID Task Force

President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force has waited weeks in a postelection cone of silence, unable to talk to government counterparts while pandemic cases skyrocket, as a previously obscure bureaucrat at the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, essentially held vaccine-distribution planning hostage. She refused to take the technical step of “ascertaining” a Biden win, which would allow the outgoing administration to share plans with the incoming one.Finally, yesterday afternoon, Murphy gave President-elect Biden “ascertainment” of what has been clear for weeks: that he was the apparent winner of the presidential election. In a petulant letter to “Mr. Biden,” she said that she, her family, and even her pets had received many threats, “in an effort to coerce me into making this determination prematurely.”With Murphy’s certification, the easy part is over. Now, over two weeks late, comes the most consequential executive transition in modern American history, as the nation barrels into another deadly month battling the COVID-19 pandemic with cases skyrocketing.The Trump administration failed to launch a national testing plan for COVID-19, which led us to miles-long lines of idling cars, with desperate drivers waiting to get their noses swabbed. Nor did it have an ongoing national strategy for maintaining a stockpile of protective equipment, forcing nurses to reuse potentially virus-saturated face masks. Nor did it have consistent national messaging, as it airdropped dubious testing guidance onto the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a remarkable act of political interference. But apparently it has well-oiled plans to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine to hundreds of millions of Americans. “Operation Warp Speed has very detailed plans (and has been collaborating) with each state,” a senior administration official told Vanity Fair. “Operation Warp Speed is all over it.” That remains to be seen. And as the transition crisis intensified, a thought began to occur to at least one member of Biden’s COVID task force: Maybe Operation Warp Speed had been booby-trapped, and a plan had essentially been hatched to make timely vaccine distribution all but impossible. That would leave President Trump with the victory of overseeing its successful development, and an incoming President Biden with the failure to distribute it. “I don’t want to believe that,” a Biden task force member told Vanity Fair. But he added that the “intentional delay…handicaps the team coming in” and will cost American lives. “I can’t imagine how horrified the average American feels… watching on TV that these games are being played by the Trump administration, and not letting the Biden team be best prepared to save their lives.” Those within the government’s health agencies have been no happier with the administration’s vow of silence. One official within the Department of Health and Human Services described the inability to pass along information as “scary.” Another said, “There is no communication, no emails, nobody called. Our transition books have not left our hands. Silence.” Biden’s COVID-19 task force is about to discover what sort of lacunae exist between the Operation Warp Speed plans exhibited in glossy charts in the Rose Garden and the real-world complexity of getting delicate COVID-19 vaccines from manufacturing plants and into patients’ arms. One major concern of the task force is whether plans have been developed to get the vaccine to medically underserved communities, which Biden has pledged to do. If there is a Murphy’s Law, of sorts, to distributing a COVID-19 vaccine—in which everything that can go wrong will—the delay in ascertainment could haunt the rollout. Three people familiar with the work of Biden’s task force enumerated the challenges it is facing. There could be as many as four different COVID-19 vaccines, each of which needs to be stored, handled, and dosed differently, with different timing for follow-up doses. Anyone who transports, receives, stores, or administers a vaccine needs to be trained. With medical staff exhausted, and short on PPE, how will they be trained, and how will they administer it? With only 20 million doses at first, who will receive it? How will individuals know if they’re part of a high-risk group that can cut to the front of the line? “We have to know what the plan is,” said the task force member. “Everyone along the way has to be trained on the plan.” Even if all that goes swimmingly, you “have to have a person who wants to take it.” On that count, the branding has not helped. The name Warp Speed
“has not been an appealing word for a lot of people,” said the task force member, as it has stirred concerns that the development has been “recklessly fast.” Among African American men, as well as marginalized communities of refugees, immigrants, and migrants, there is “high distrust of the vaccine,” said one Biden transition adviser. “That’s a barrier as big as having no vaccine at all.” The vaccine has “a lot of P.R. problems,” said Michael Einhorn, the president of Dealmed, a medical supply company that distributes vaccines. “How the distribution will get to underserved communities and if the historic mistrust communities of color have around vaccines can be overcome is an important question that needs to be addressed,” said an advocate working with the FDA to improve public confidence in a COVID-19 vaccine.A concerted public-education campaign should have begun months ago, said the task force member. “You need to have the messengers with the right message, and the right language, and the right cultural language.” To date, Operation Warp Speed has unrolled with a great deal of bluster but less transparency, run by an executive board of five officials, including President Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser, Jared Kushner, and his college roommate. “What I am hearing again is a lot of confidence: ‘We got this, no problem. It’s all figured out,’” said the Biden task force member. But as we stand at the cusp of the most complex mass-vaccination campaign in human history, it is worth remembering Kushner’s premature boast last April on Fox News that “the federal government rose to the challenge” of a COVID-19 response, “and this is a great success story.”More Great Stories From Vanity Fair       — Ivanka and Jared’s Post–White House Future Is an Island Alone— Inside Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle’s Supposed RNC-Takeover Plot— Why Mike Pompeo’s Postelection Trump Worship Carries Real Risks— Ivanka Trump Was My Best Friend. Now She’s MAGA Royalty— As Trump Clings to Power, His Allies Quietly Admit DefeatElon Musk’s Totally Awful, Completely Bonkers, Most Excellent Year— After Biden’s Victory, Can the Media Tune Out Trump’s 2020 Delusions?— From the Archive: Donald Trump Was the Best Cable-News President in History— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.Read More

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