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Will Biden's Science-Based COVID-19 Approach Be Enough To Regain Public Trust?


There was a new kind of briefing today from the White House, an attempt at a fresh start on sharing information about the coronavirus and assurances about the importance of being frank about dealing with the pandemic. Here's how Andy Slavitt, one of the president's advisers, described it.


ANDY SLAVITT: I want to level with the public that we are facing two constraining factors. The first is getting enough supply quickly enough. And the second is the ability to administer the vaccines quickly. But it will be months before everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.

CHANG: All right. Sitting in on this Zoom briefing were NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Hey to both of you.


ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So, Tam, let's start with you. There was - there's already a daily briefing, right? So why is the Biden administration doing another one? Like, what signal are they trying to send here, you think?

KEITH: In part, it's a signal that they've been sending this whole first week in office, that they are not the Trump administration. And as you remember, in the early part of the pandemic, there were regular Coronavirus Task Force briefings, but they were quickly taken over by President Trump, who used them to downplay the severity of the crisis. And then in April, the briefings just went away. The Biden team put CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci out front with this briefing today. And Dr. Nahid Bhadelia at Boston University says that the sheer act of holding regular science-based briefings can make a difference for the public understanding.

NAHID BHADELIA: Over the last year of this pandemic, there has been this vacuum for information. And in those scenarios, that creates the space for misinformation, confusion, disinformation. And when you have frequent sharing of good information, that takes some of the oxygen out of the room. That really helps.

KEITH: I will say there were some glitches today. There were a few of those you-need-to-unmute moments. The slides weren't visible on YouTube. There are some things to work out.

CHANG: Of course. Well, Rob, what stood out to you as you were listening to what Biden's official - the Biden officials were saying today?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, Dr. Walensky had some good news for a change. It looks like the number of people dying from COVID-19 may have finally started falling. The seven-day daily average deaths fell by almost 5%. And that comes after the number of people getting infected and ending up in the hospital had finally started falling too. So all that suggests that the worst may finally be passing with this terrible surge that's been wreaking havoc around the country. Now, that doesn't mean the U.S. is in the clear, you know, far from it. The pandemic is still raging. Thousands are still getting infected and dying every day. So Walensky is stressing that people can't let down their guard. Everyone needs to keep wearing those masks, staying away from people they don't live with, try not to travel, to buy enough time to get enough people vaccinated.

CHANG: Yeah, well, on the vaccination rollout, anything more being done to speed it up?

STEIN: Yeah. So Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, announced a move to let retired doctors and nurses start giving people shots, as well as letting doctors give shots to people in any state, not just where they're licensed. And having enough vaccinators is one of the many bottlenecks that have been slowing things down. You know, remember - while more than 44 million doses of vaccine have been distributed, only about half of those doses have actually gotten into people's arms. And one of the reasons is that there just isn't enough staff available in some places, you know, especially health care workers in places where - that have just been slammed by the pandemic. But this obviously won't solve all the problems. In some places, the problem isn't enough vaccinators, it's enough freezers. In other places, it's enough people and systems to schedule people efficiently or, you know, big enough places to vaccinate lots of people fast and reach the people who need the vaccine the most. And of course, in lots of places, it's just not enough vaccines available.

CHANG: Right. Well, Tam, I know that you have been talking to people who specialize in public health communications. What stood out to them?

KEITH: Yeah. There was a lot of repetition of this idea that the Biden administration will level with the public, that there will be challenges, that they will acknowledge where they mess up. And Dr. Joshua Sharfstein at Johns Hopkins University, who has written a book about crisis communications, says that that's exactly what they need to do.

JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN: The most important quality of communication in a crisis is credibility. If you're just telling people what they want to hear and sugarcoating facts, people stop trusting the message. And, you know, the way to undo that, the way to have credibility is to be clear and honest and give people difficult news.

KEITH: In the name of full disclosure, I should say that Sharfstein has been in consideration for a position in the Biden administration. He said that these briefings are right out of the textbook about how you're supposed to handle a health crisis, including Dr. Walensky talking through common side effects with vaccines, the rare cases of allergic reactions, and then going through the numbers in detail, in part to get past hesitancy.

CHANG: OK. So they're going to be doing these briefings three times a week, with the next one on Friday. Rob, what are you going to be looking for going forward, I mean, in terms of facts?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, there are still lots of problems. You know, when will the U.S. finally have enough tests? When will they have enough masks? And there's still a lot we don't know. A big one is, what's going to happen with these new strains of the virus? You know, how much of a threat do they really pose? The one discovered in the U.K. that spreads faster has already been spotted in more than half of states. The one identified in Brazil has just been discovered in Minnesota. Experts assume the other one found in South Africa may be better at evading vaccines. It's already here. The questions are, how fast will they spread, and how good will the vaccines be against them? And, you know, the administration knows that it has to do a better job of searching for these, so we get an early warning if any new ones start to pop up and pose a threat.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Stein and Tamara Keith.

Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.