Inside Biden’s COVID response team, constant texting and nightly presidential reports

Michael Wilner
·7 min read

Dr. Anthony Fauci learned quickly that being on President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 response team meant constant texts, Saturday meetings, and an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

The team has settled into a daily routine overflowing with highly punctual meetings, technical briefings and strategy sessions, interspersed by a continuous stream of texting, calls and ad hoc gatherings.

That is a result of the management style of Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 response. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, refers to him as the team’s “coach” or “conductor.”

“He really understands indepth everything that’s going on,” Fauci said. “He’s not a scientist, but he understands enough of the science that you can have a very meaningful discussion with him about the kinds of recommendations and policies that we talk about all the time.”

Last month, Biden said he learned from experience “just how important it is to have someone who can manage all the moving parts with efficiency, speed, and integrity, and accountability.” Zients fulfilled those requirements, he said.

When the response team holds its first scheduled meeting each morning, many officials call in from home. But Zients orchestrates that meeting from his office in the West Wing of the White House.

By the end of the day, the sprawling team comprised of dozens of epidemiologists, data scientists, infectious disease experts and communications staff has prepared a report averaging 12 pages on the state of the pandemic — with breakdowns on the vaccination campaign, testing, supply and other key metrics — that is presented to the president each night.

It is the first document that Zients reviews each day, and the last.

“Ever since I got involved when I was named in early December, this is all I’ve been doing,” Zients told McClatchy in an interview. “This is all the team’s been doing. We go to bed at night thinking through what more can we do, how can we execute it at an even faster pace. And I wake up in the morning thinking the same.”

Zients is one of the few senior White House officials who regularly briefs the president in person, as others are kept at bay due to pandemic restrictions. He meets with a select number of staff members in his office and frequently huddles with Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff.

“We’re regularly communicating with the president,” Zients said. “He digs into the numbers and the operational details. He sets clear goals.”

“Part of the team culture and ethic is, if there’s a problem, identify it, and put it on the table,” Zients added. “It’s not a matter of doing enough — it’s a matter of overwhelming the problem and preparing for all contingencies.”

TEAM RHYTHM

As the pandemic enters a new phase — with coronavirus variants spreading, research into booster shots accelerating and demand for vaccines dwindling — the team is relying on the daily work rhythm it has developed.

“We’re in almost continual touch with each other, which I like,” Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. “If you look at the times that we meet officially, punctuated by the times we just text, call or interact with each other, you really get the feeling that this is a full-time, all-hands-on-deck situation.”

After a meeting with a small group of senior White House staff each morning, where developments on the coronavirus response typically dominate the call, Zients convenes the COVID-19 team to lay out problems to get ideas from a range of advisers. Another meeting is held with team members every Saturday morning.

Zients holds a call with governors every Tuesday and is separately in direct contact with up to a dozen of them throughout an average week.

He holds a meeting with Cabinet-level officials each week and has a standing briefing for the president with his chief medical team — including Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — once a week. The team conducts a press briefing over Zoom, three times each week.

Zients’ deputy, Natalie Quillian, holds a daily interagency call with the goal of synchronizing the government response. And other team members are responsible for maintaining open lines of communication with mayors and other state, local and county health officials.

But the informal calls, texting and ad hoc meetings occur throughout the day, and sometimes late into the night, Fauci said.

It is a stark contrast from the operations of the former Trump administration, which kept a sporadic schedule of briefings and meetings.

“We generally benefit from each others’ expertise and opinion, and you generally have Jeff there as the coach or the conductor of this orchestra of people, and it really works very well,” Fauci said.

NEW TEAM CHALLENGES

Biden’s team has met several of his goals. Over 200 million vaccine shots have been administered in Biden’s first 100 days in office. More than 80 percent of seniors — a demographic that has experienced the most deaths from COVID-19 — received at least their first shot, and two-thirds are fully vaccinated.

Zients said that the administration is preparing to deliver booster shots — if scientists and regulators determine they are necessary — using the production and distribution systems that were set up for the initial vaccination campaign.

“We will obviously follow the science in terms of boosters, and whether and when they would be needed,” he said. “The infrastructure of our response is stood up and ready.”

In private conversations with associates, Zients has acknowledged that the number of vaccinations per day is likely to peak in a matter of weeks, if not days, and slowly come down as demand for new vaccine shots dwindles. Over 3 million shots a day have been administered across the country in the last two weeks.

That will create a new set of challenges for the team on convincing people who are still refusing to take the vaccine to get their shot.

“I’ve had multiple occasions where Jeff just calls me up, and will say, what do you think about this? Or where do you go here?” said Michael Osterholm, a former member of Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board during the presidential transition.

“We’re probably two to three weeks off from reaching a midpoint between not enough vaccine with more arms and not enough arms with lots of vaccine. That’s going to be a huge challenge, and it’s coming up,” Osterholm said.

“Let’s put it this way: they see it coming. They know it’s coming. And I don’t think anyone has the pixie dust or magic formula for how to avoid it,” he said.

Part of the team’s challenge will be to reach sections of the country that didn’t support Biden. Polls have shown that white, rural Republicans are among the groups most skeptical of the vaccines.

“I think we’re there now. I think we’ve got a problem,” said Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council and a member of the coronavirus task force during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“I’m disappointed that the Biden administration isn’t speaking more to conservatives, and is saying we don’t know how to talk to them, or we’re not the right messengers. I think that’s a terrible message,” he said. “He’s president of everybody in the country, including the people that didn’t vote for him.”

Grogan said that the Biden team deserves credit for getting the country quickly to a point where vaccines are widely available.

“There’s no question things accelerated. I think they would’ve accelerated anyway, but I think you’ve got to give them credit for what they did,” he said.

Zients says his team is gearing up for the next phase of the pandemic, when the administration will have to increase vaccine confidence across a diverse set of communities and prepare for the potential need for booster shots.

“In the coming months, we’ll work to continue getting America back to normal – and that means reaching out to everyone to get as many shots in arms as quickly, efficiently, and equitably as possible, and to keep up our guard,” he said.

“We know people are tired and frustrated with this pandemic. All of us have a shared goal of getting back to normal, and the president has said if all of us do our part, we can have a close-to-normal Fourth of July,” Zients said. “But we can only get there if everyone does their part.”