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Biden Team Must Create National Pandemic Strategy

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The incoming Biden administration must formulate an effective national strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic, said Susan R. Bailey, MD, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), in a speech delivered today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Bailey noted that America’s fight against the pandemic is in a critical phase, as evidenced by the escalation in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in recent weeks. Emergency departments and ICUs are overwhelmed; many frontline clinicians are burned out; and the state- and local-level mechanisms for vaccine distribution have been slow and inconsistent, she said.

“The most important lesson for this moment, and for the year ahead, is that leaving state and local officials to shoulder this burden alone without adequate support from the federal government is not going to work,” Bailey emphasized.

She called on the Biden administration, which takes over next week, to “provide states and local jurisdictions with additional resources, guidance, and support to enable rapid distribution and administration of vaccines.”

In addition, she said, the incoming administration needs to develop a more robust, national strategy for continued COVID-19 testing and PPE production “by tapping into the full powers of the Defense Production Act.”

Biden Vaccine Distribution Policy

In a question-and-answer period following her speech, however, Bailey said she opposed the president-elect’s decision to release nearly all available vaccine supplies immediately, rather than hold back some doses for the second shots that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require. On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that it plans to do the same thing.

“We’re a little bit concerned about the announcement that [the Department of Health & Human Services] will not hold back vaccine doses to make sure that everyone who’s gotten their first dose will have a second dose in reserve,” Bailey said. “We don’t have adequate data to tell us that one dose is sufficient — we don’t think it is — and how long you can wait for the second dose without losing the benefits of the first dose.”

She added that it’s not recommended that people mix the two vaccines in the first and second doses. “Since the Pfizer vaccine has such rigid storage requirements, I want to make sure there’s plenty of vaccine for frontline healthcare workers who got the Pfizer vaccine because it was the first one to come out in December. I want to make sure they get their second dose on time and [do] not have to wait.”

Bailey said she hoped there will be plenty of vaccine supply. But she suggested that state and local health authorities be in communication with the federal government about whether there will be enough vaccine to guarantee people can get both doses.

Bolstering Public Health

In her speech, Bailey outlined five areas in which steps should be taken to improve the health system so that it isn’t overwhelmed the next time the US has a public health crisis:

  • Restore trust in science and science-based decision making. Make sure that scientific institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are “free from political pressure, and that their actions are guided by the best available scientific evidence.”

  • Ensure that the health system provides all Americans with affordable access to comprehensive healthcare. Bailey wasn’t talking about Medicare for All; she suggested that perhaps there be a second enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance exchanges.

  • Work to remove healthcare inequities that have hurt communities of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. She referred to a recent AMA policy statement that recognized racism as a public health threat.

  • Improve public health domestically and globally. Among other things, she noted, the public health infrastructure needs to be revitalized after “decades of disinvestment and neglect,” which has contributed to the slow vaccine rollout.

  • Recognize the global health community and restore America’s leadership in global efforts to combat disease, which are critical to preventing future threats. She praised Biden for his promise that the US will rejoin the World Health Organization.

At several points in her presentation, Bailey rejected political interference with science and healthcare. Among other things, she said public health could be improved by protecting the doctor-patient relationship from political interference.

Answering a question about how to separate politics from the pandemic, she replied, “The key is in sticking to the science and listening to our public health authorities. They all have to deliver the same message. Also, leaders at all levels, including in our communities, our schools, churches and college campuses, should wear masks and socially distance. This isn’t about anything other than the desire to get out of the pandemic and get our country on the right track again. Masks shouldn’t be political. Going back to school shouldn’t be political. Taking a certain medication or not shouldn’t be political. We need to stick to the science and listen to our public health authorities. That’s the quickest way out.”

Asked when she thought that life might get back to normal again in the US, Bailey said a lot depends on the extent of vaccine uptake and how much self-discipline people exhibit in following public health advice. “I think we’re looking at the end of this year. I’m hopeful that by fall, things will have opened up quite a bit as the Venn diagrams of those who’ve gotten vaccines grow larger.”

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