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For the first time in 12 months, COVID-19 experts in the U.S. seem optimistic. “I could not be happier and more relieved,” says Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and affiliate of the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. Her sudden hopefulness, and that of two other leading experts who spoke with Yahoo Life, springs from the ushering in of a new administration — one that has promised to mount an aggressive strategy against COVID-19, which has now killed over 400,000 Americans.
Just hours after President Joe Biden’s swearing-in, he signed an executive order initiating the process of rejoining the World Health Organization, followed by another requiring federal employees to wear masks on federal property. Both are a part of the 23-page national COVID-19 strategy his team rolled out, which also includes plans to “conduct regular expert-led, science-based public briefings,” mount an aggressive national vaccination strategy and expand “masking, testing, data, treatments [and] health care workforce.” On Thursday morning, Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted that the administration plans to take on the pandemic “full bore.”
Good morning America. At long last, you get a National Strategy to tackle COVID today. This isn’t going to be easy, and it isn’t going to be fast — sadly many more losses ahead.
But we’re going to have a plan and we’re going to take this on full bore. https://t.co/TpTcyJn7Xh
— Ronald Klain (@WHCOS) January 21, 2021
The actions mark a major departure from the previous administration, which was condemned for failing to take federal action against a pandemic that has infected more than 24 million Americans. For experts like Rasmussen, it’s comforting. “The Biden administration’s plans are to put science first,” Rasmussen says. “The executive orders President Biden is enacting reflect that commitment, and while it’s not going to instantly improve things for the entire country, it’s a very promising start and gives me a lot of hope that finally, we’ll have leadership that makes policy based on evidence rather than political expediency.”
Former President Donald Trump was attacked early on in the pandemic for refusing to wear a face mask and downplaying the risks of the virus — which he admitted to in an interview with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward. He also faced criticism for suggesting that Americans begin using untested drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and for asking his team to study whether injecting disinfectants could cure the virus.
Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention specialist at George Mason University, says that a plan of action is long overdue. “For the better part of a year now we’ve seen virtually no COVID-19 response from the White House, almost as if they had decided to just wash their hands of it,” Popescu says. “This change is very welcomed and the emphasis President Biden has placed on not only vaccination distribution and rejoining the WHO, but also a focus on those severely impacted by the pandemic really points to an American response that is targeted, science-based, and with public health instead of against it.”
Both Rasmussen and Popescu say that reengaging with the WHO, which former President Donald Trump cut ties with over the summer, is crucial. “Rejoining the WHO signals not only our commitment to global health but also partnerships in pandemic response and enhancing public health,” says Popescu. “Pandemics are global, and therefore don’t only impact the U.S.,” adds Rasmussen. “International collaboration will be crucial to ending this pandemic on a global scale, and being part of the WHO and contributing to it as a member state is absolutely critical to the global efforts that will be necessary to end the pandemic for good (as well as prepare for the next one).”
Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and researcher at Brown University, says her “dominant feeling is relief” — because of something simple. “At the inauguration, I heard President Biden talk about the importance of facts. I am beyond thrilled to once again have an administration that starts at that very minimal baseline level: believing in, and supporting, the collection and use of true data,” says Ranney. “That alone will be a huge step ahead for our country. Imagine what it will feel like to trust data on the number of vaccines that we have, the number of units of PPE ready for distribution?”
On top of a commitment to publicly sharing data, Biden has launched the “100-day masking challenge,” calling on Americans to wear masks for his first 100 days in office. Data has suggested that masks may reduce the spread of COVID-19 by up to 80 percent, suggesting that the pandemic could be quickly slowed if more Americans abide by this request. Still, experts worry it will take more than a social media campaign.
“I think his goal is aspirational, for sure. But imagine that we get 90 percent [wearing masks] instead of 100 percent — that’s still a huge improvement, and will still make a difference,” says Ranney. “The more behavior change that happens, the more sickness and death that we can prevent.”
Popescu agrees that it has the potential to make an impact. “We have so much variability in state responses that national guidance on this is critical,” says Popescu. “The absence of national COVID-19 efforts leaves it to the states to interpret and ultimately decide what they consider efficacious for COVID-19 response. Also, this really makes federal employees role models in public health and curbing COVID-19.”
As of this week, 37 states plus the District of Columbia have some form of mask mandate; the remaining 13 states do not. Included in the list of those without them are states hard-hit by COVID-19, like Arizona, South Dakota, North Dakota and Florida. Research has shown that states that enact mask mandates see cases stabilize in the weeks following.
Rasmussen applauds the intention but suggests more will need to be done. “I think this will be a start, but it really depends on how much effort will be put into changing the larger issue with masks,” she says. “That means overcoming political or ideological objections to masking by many people who are likely to be hostile to any policy the Biden administration will propose. Winning hearts and minds is going to be a steep uphill battle, and an optional masking challenge isn’t likely to make a lot of headway there. The masking challenge will have to be accompanied by major outreach to try and overcome the massive polarization on this issue.”
Biden has shown signs that he is invested in changing the narrative. In a tweet Wednesday night, he said “wearing masks isn't a partisan issue,” adding “it's a patriotic act that can save countless lives.” He reiterated the sentiment in a press conference on Thursday, adding, “the experts say by wearing a mask from now until April, we'd save more than 50,000 lives.”
Wearing masks isn't a partisan issue — it's a patriotic act that can save countless lives. That's why I signed an executive order today issuing a mask mandate on federal property. It's time to mask up, America.
— President Biden (@POTUS) January 21, 2021
All three experts say there is still a long battle ahead, but one that we are now better equipped to win. “Just as we didn’t get in this mess overnight, we will not get out of it overnight,” says Ranney. “There is a significant proportion of our population (and our elected leaders) who still don't ‘believe’ in the lethality of this virus. But...we don’t need every single person on board. We just need most of us on board. And the history of public health tells us that with a transparent and fact-driven messaging campaign, in which influencers and politicians share truth instead of misinformation, we will be able to change the patterns of transmission.”
Popescu feels equally assured. “I’m hopeful and frankly, relieved ... On Tuesday, we saw President Biden recognize and mourn the loss of 400,000 Americans — this was the first time we saw acknowledgment of the toll this pandemic has taken on the United States,” she says. “While I know the road will be long, I am beyond happy to now have national leadership that recognizes how complex this situation is and recognizes the critical need for empathy and is working to tackle all the issues.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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