With 64 days until his inauguration, and the coronavirus pandemic worsening by the day, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team is locked out of the government’s detailed data on COVID-19 testing, therapeutics, medical supplies, hospitalizations, and more.
“We do not have access to official government data, internal data sets,” David Kessler, one of the cochairs of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, said during a Tuesday press call. “We’re dependent on everything that you see,” he added, pointing to the COVID Tracking Project launched by the Atlantic to collect public data related to the pandemic.
Though Biden won the presidential election, President Donald Trump has refused to acknowledge the result while making false and unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. And the General Services Administration, run by a Trump appointee, has not yet allowed the White House and other federal agencies to begin the work necessary to ensure a smooth transition before Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration. The president-elect's team has balanced a projection of confidence that he can pull off a competent transition against warnings that Trump’s refusal to concede and cooperate will make it that much harder to get the pandemic under control. Trump has been largely silent and inattentive, focused instead on his quixotic election fight.
“More people may die if we don’t coordinate,” Biden replied bluntly at a Monday news conference when asked about the problems posed by the delayed transition.
“A presidential transition is like a relay race, and any stumble, fumble or miss with the pass of the baton can cost lives,” Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and a former CDC director, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “For every delay, the risk of loss of momentum, of failure to avoid an obstacle increases.”
The US is now wrestling with a rapidly worsening third wave of the coronavirus pandemic across the country. There have been 1 million new infections reported in the last week alone. More people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the US than ever. Nearly 250,000 people have died in the US since the pandemic was declared. State and city officials have started to impose new restrictions on indoor gatherings and require mask-wearing to help slow the spread of the virus, which is raging in every state. Health officials are begging people to take the pandemic seriously.
The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer last week announced promising preliminary results from its coronavirus vaccine trial, suggesting that people who received the vaccine experienced 90% fewer cases of COVID-19 compared to those who got a placebo. Since then, the pharmaceutical company Moderna reported its vaccine was more than 94% effective based on early results.
Even that positive news revealed problems created by the fracture between the White House and Biden’s transition team.
“There are career officials at [the US Department of Health and Human Services] that are right now developing plans for February and March on vaccine distribution,” Kessler said on the Tuesday call. “Our team cannot communicate with them. We are setting up our recommendations to the president-elect for the same task. The sooner the Biden transition team can meet with officials working on these questions, the more seamlessly the transition will be for the American people.”
“Getting everyone vaccinated who wants to be vaccinated is a daunting challenge under the best of circumstances,” he added.
Vivek Murthy, another cochair of Biden’s coronavirus task force, confirmed on the call that the transition team is not getting even basic information from the White House. Asked by BuzzFeed News if it's receiving real-time data on the nation’s supply of therapeutics to treat COVID-19, tests to discover the virus, the number of people hospitalized with the virus, or amounts of personal protective equipment, Murthy said, “The simple answer to that, unfortunately, is no on all of those items.”
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, a Biden transition official on Tuesday noted the announcement last week that Ron Klain, a longtime Biden aide, would serve as White House chief of staff in the next administration. Klain headed the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
“With every day that passes,” the transition official added, “it is even more vital that the team has all of the information necessary to prepare to govern.”
The nation’s governors, who have dealt with the pandemic on a state level while Trump politicized mask-wearing and other facets of the response, are also concerned about the delay.
Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, has expressed his frustration over the stalled transition. And George Helmy, chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, told BuzzFeed News by telephone Tuesday that Trump’s refusal to work with Biden could be catastrophic to efforts to convince citizens of the safety of soon-to-arrive vaccines.
“Not doing that doesn’t help us build and communicate the trust narrative on this,” Helmy said.
“Regardless of party,” he added, citizens need to know that the “government is behind this.”
Biden has been communicating with governors in the meantime. Murphy has been in close contact with the president-elect’s team, including Murthy. Helmy, though, warned of a potential breakdown in a “logistical and supply chain effort that no state has undertaken in recent history,” given Trump’s refusal to coordinate with Biden.
“Any hiccup, be it a day or a week,” Helmy said, “could jeopardize the process and cost lives.”