'Equity is very front and center' for Biden's new COVID-19 task force

The World
Dr. Céline Gounder has been named to President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 task force.

President-elect Joe Biden named his COVID-19 task force this week, signaling that fighting the raging pandemic will be the immediate priority of his new administration. It's an abrupt shift from President Donald Trump's more unworried approach to the virus.

Biden's coronavirus task force faces astounding challenges with coronavirus infections soaring globally. The United States has reached nearly 10.5 million cases of COVID-19, and experts are warning cases could skyrocket further as winter approaches. Biden's coronavirus advisory board is dominated by scientists and doctors, while Trump has had a falling out with the medical experts on his own virus task force.

“The challenge before us right now is still immense and growing, and so is the need for bold action to fight this pandemic,” Biden said earlier this week. “We are still facing a dark winter.”

He called on Americans to separate politics from the virus and embrace mask-wearing.

Dr. Céline Gounder, an HIV and infectious disease specialist, is among the experts named to Biden's task force. She joined The World's host Marco Werman from New York to discuss the challenges ahead.

Related: Next US president faces uphill battle to rebuild CDC relationship with WHO

Marco Werman: Congratulations on your appointment, Dr. Gounder. It's clear, though, with cases continuing to rise, that the task force has a massive challenge. What are your priorities for this task force? Where do you even start? 

Dr. Céline Gounder: I think the number one thing we can start today that every single American could have started yesterday — could have started months ago — is wearing a mask. And so I think that will continue to be front and center. How do we depoliticize the wearing of a mask? The way I think about it is sort of like toilet paper. You know, toilet paper is not a political symbol. It's a basic hygienic measure. And similarly, we should be thinking about masks as such. But beyond that, we're really going to have to continue to do many of the other measures we've been undertaking over the last several months. So, that includes social distancing, keeping at least 6 feet apart, staying away from crowds. And then, finally, getting tested and working with contact tracers if they reach out to you so that we can figure out where the disease is spreading and how to contain it. 

Citizen behavior has been so spotty. Is there a general sense that the US almost needs to start anew, as if it's spring again? Consider a national lockdown, test, test, test, trace, trace, trace, and then slowly reopen? 

You know, I really don't like the word lockdown or shutdown. I think it implies that this is a binary decision and an on-or-off switch. And I think we know enough now that we don't have to be quite so draconian. I think of it more like a dimmer switch or a dial where you tighten up or you loosen measures based on what's happening in a particular community. 

So, for example, in New York City, we are approaching 3%  test positivity, we'll probably hit that over the weekend. We were trending around 1% or even less for much of the last several months. And then, in the last couple of weeks, we have been slowly trending up. And that means that we should be looking at tightening up on things like indoor dining. We should probably put a pause on that, on bars and indoor gyms, and other high-risk kinds of activities like that. But that does not mean we have to institute a lockdown on everything. It's really about having your finger on the pulse, very carefully measuring transmission in the community and tightening or loosening accordingly. 

The pandemic has exposed very starkly who is most vulnerable to COVID-19 and how it hits lower-income people and people of color most. How do you see the task force dealing with this really harsh reality? 

Well, equity is very front and center for the task force, making sure that we're doing our best to protect those who have borne a disproportionate burden of the disease up until now; that we very much address their needs in terms of testing; that we locate testing centers in the hardest-hit communities; and that we make sure that the health care providers serving those hardest-hit communities, those hospitals, those doctors, those nurses have the resources they need to care for those patients. 

RelatedWhere do we stand with testing and a vaccine for the coronavirus?

So, to your very first piece of advice, wear masks. I mean, this falls into the bucket of just human behavior. And it seems one of the best ways to fight this disease is to get people to change their behavior. How does your experience with combating the spread of HIV play into this? 

I think you need to get trusted messengers from communities. And so that really begins with mapping who those people are. So you really have to do that kind of mapping. You could think of it as a sort of anthropology in the field. You need to do that at all levels and figure out who people will respond to and listen to. 

How do you see the Biden administration at the global level working with leaders in other countries to combat the pandemic? 

I think you're going to see a more cooperative response. Biden's chief of staff is going to be Ron Klain, who was previously his chief of staff when he served as the vice president. Ron Klain was also the White House's Ebola coordinator under President Obama. He has tremendous experience in managing epidemics, in interfacing with leaders both domestic and globally. And I think that a more cooperative global response is what you're going to see, including with participation in the World Health Organization. 

Your father emigrated to the US from India. You have a family connection to the state of Tamil Nadu. You've worked with officials there during the lockdown. What's been the reaction in Tamil Nadu and your father's village to your appointment to the Biden task force? 

You know, it's funny. When we have gone back to the village, I thought my dad was a rock star, the way that they responded to that. I think it's going to be on a whole other level when I go back next time. I was frankly a little bit worried for my family. My uncle is in his mid-80s. He’s really barely left the village in his lifetime. And to have all of these journalists descending upon this tiny village, I was a little bit worried about that, to be honest. It's a little overwhelming.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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