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Biden's Team Works With State Governors On Pandemic Plans, While Awaiting Transition

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, with the Trump administration not allowing the transition to formally begin, President-elect Biden can't get all the information he needs about the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports on one way that he's adapting.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, there's no question what his greatest challenge will be - the coronavirus. But Biden says he and his advisers are in the dark about the details of what the federal government is doing right now and plans to do in the weeks ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: We don't have access to all the information that we need to get from all the various agencies. We're not able to deal with everything from testing to guidance to the all-important issue of vaccine distribution.

KEITH: So in the absence of direct access, Biden's team is working around the federal government and going directly to state governors, who, for the past eight months, have been on the front lines of trying to manage the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I know many of you are facing shortages of PPE and testing and other supplies. You need help, and I want you to know that I will be your partner in the White House.

KEITH: Yesterday, Biden had a video call with 10 governors - five Democrats, five Republicans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I mean this from the bottom of my heart. I don't see this as a red-state issue or a blue-state issue. I see this - we're all in this together.

KEITH: The meeting was private except for Biden's opening remarks. Distributing vaccines and convincing enough Americans to sign up for injections will be a Herculean task, one that has begun in the Trump administration with Operation Warp Speed. Each state has its own vaccine distribution plan, so working with governors can give Biden and his team a window into what they'll be inheriting in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We haven't been able to get into Operation Warp Speed, but we will take what we've learned today and build it into our planning.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: They are clear that this is going to have to be a partnership and that this every state for his or herself isn't working - never worked.

KEITH: New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was on the call and is also a co-chair of the Biden transition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUJAN GRISHAM: President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are putting together the mechanisms to be courageous enough to own the situation this country's in and to bring the relief that we need.

KEITH: What Lujan Grisham is saying is that the Trump administration pushed most of the responsibility to governors to procure PPE and ventilators, to make decisions about mask guidelines and reopening plans. And at least in the way President Trump has talked about it, like in this "Fox News Sunday" interview from July, it was as if any federal support was him doing states a favor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Some governors have done well. Some governors have done poorly. They're supposed to have supplies. They didn't have - I supplied everybody.

KEITH: Vice President Pence has held regular calls with governors, checking on what they need. But when it came to the president, if a governor complained too loudly, they'd get smacked down in a tweet or from the briefing room. And Trump spent months badgering Democratic governors to reopen their states.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And you got to open your states. Got to open your state. Open it. Open it up, governor. Open it up, governor. Open it up, governor.

KEITH: Biden insists he doesn't see the need for any sort of national lockdown, that public health restrictions should be dictated by the conditions on the ground. But he did talk to the governors about a nationwide mask mandate, and he said yesterday's call wasn't a one-off. The conversation will continue.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.