Inside Biden’s New Coronavirus Advisory Board
A Q&A with board member Céline Gounder
On Monday, President-elect Joe Biden named his coronavirus advisory board, a diverse group of doctors, scientists, and public health experts who will help the new administration rein in the pandemic. One of the members is Céline Gounder, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine who has expertise in infectious diseases, internal medicine, and epidemiology. Medium Coronavirus Blog spoke with Gounder about the announcement, the advisory board’s role in the new administration’s coronavirus response, and how they plan to handle the third wave of the pandemic. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Medium Coronavirus Blog: First off, congratulations!
Céline Gounder: Thank you. It’s very exciting.
When did you find out you were going to be on the committee?
I kind of had a heads up a few days ahead of time. And then I got the call last week that if the now president-elect is elected, they would like me on this advisory board. And then it was officially announced this week.
What were your thoughts when you got the call?
Partly, it’s an honor; it’s a privilege. It’s, of course, exciting to have a voice and role in all of this. But I think perhaps most importantly, it was this big sigh of relief of “Oh, they’re going to be asking scientists and doctors and public health experts to lead the way. Isn’t that amazing?” We’ve been really hungry for that kind of leadership.
It’s funny, some of my friends texted me when they saw the news on television, and they said, “We had tears in our eyes!” And yes, they’re excited for me, but actually, part of the reason they were tearing up was they’re health care providers or public health folks like me, and they have felt so neglected and unsupported while fighting the virus on the front lines and were just so relieved to see that people like them, who have the expertise and the know-how, were going to be leading and advising on the response.
That’s really powerful. Have you started in your official duties? Are you all already meeting?
I personally have had two briefings with the president-elect and vice president-elect already. We will be meeting as a group, the advisory board, and we’ll also be interfacing as individual members of the advisory board with the president- and vice president-elect, and we’ll be interfacing with the transition team.
As an advisory board, we’re still getting up to speed, but I think it’s really important to understand that it’s not just the advisory board. You also have a much deeper bench of people on the transition team who’ve been working on these issues for the last several months — really since the beginning of the pandemic — preparing for the possibility that they might be in a position of taking over the response. That team is very nuts and bolts operationally oriented and has been focused on “how are we going to do this” for quite a while. So the plan is to hit the ground running on day one.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what your responsibilities are?
The advisory board has an important role, which is mainly to be thinking about the bigger picture. We complement the people who are working in the weeds to make sure we’re thinking big enough, creatively enough, and also to just put a second set of eyes on what all of these plans are. Another big role of the advisory board is to act as a liaison with the public, with other state and local health officials, and with others who are in a position of leadership in the response and to work with them to move plans forward.
Have you been held up in terms of the delay in the transition and releasing funds and things like that, or are you still able to start making plans and moving forward?
It’s definitely not an ideal situation, and we would have hoped for a more diplomatic, collegial handover here. But at the same time, the Biden team has people, including the president-elect himself, his chief of staff, Ron Klain, and many others who’ve worked in government for decades, so they understand how these systems work. They have long-standing relationships with people and are still prepared to move forward. And it’s not just the federal government. Much of public health is delivered at the state and local level, so this is going to really be a lot of working with governors and state and local health departments as well as the private sector. A lot of health systems in this country are really in the private sector, so by interfacing with those players, we can certainly keep moving forward before inauguration.
Given the state of uncontrolled spread the U.S. is in right now, what are the advisory board’s recommendations? What are your top priorities to get the pandemic under control?
Masks are absolutely essential, and that’s something that can happen today. It could have happened yesterday. I would really plead with people to take personal responsibility, to wear a mask, protect themselves, their families, their communities. If there’s one single thing we can do now to curb the spread, it would be mask-wearing. Now, that said, there’re a lot of the other things we’ve been talking about for months: the social distancing, not being in crowded spaces, being outdoors more than indoors, testing, contact tracing. These are very important in the coming weeks in terms of curbing the spread.
In terms of vaccines and therapeutics, that’s going to be a little bit farther out, but we’re certainly making plans for how to distribute and scale up those new technologies. And in terms of executive orders, the one that’s really been discussed thus far — and this is something that’s been discussed actually for months in the context of the current administration — is invoking the Defense Production Act. President-elect Biden certainly plans to do so, to scale up production of personal protective equipment and other resources that are unfortunately still in short supply. We can’t start scaling up production soon enough.