WILMINGTON, Del. – President-elect Joe Biden has selected a close adviser to help lead the nation’s response to the coronavirus crisis, choosing a veteran of the Obama administration to serve as America’s top doctor as the country suffers from a surging pandemic.
Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, has been asked to reprise the role in an expanded version in the new administration, according to an individual familiar with the decision.
He is expected to be part of a team of health-care officials who will handle the issue Biden said would his top priority, according to people with knowledge of the matter, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because decisions have not been announced.
On Thursday, Biden told CNN that Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, would serve as a chief medical adviser and help his administration with its coronavirus response plan. Fauci, who served on President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, has been criticized by the president in recent months as he has contradicted the White House’s message that the pandemic is under control and on the verge of disappearing.
“I asked him to stay on the exact same role he’s had for the past several presidents, and I asked him to be a chief medical adviser for me as well and be part of the covid team,” Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Biden’s health-care team will be crucial to the success or failure of his presidency, far more than for most administrations. He is posed to take office during a raging pandemic that has killed roughly 275,000 Americans and counting, and at a time when many Republicans are trying to undo the Affordable Care Act, a law that provides insurance to millions.
Biden also said Thursday that he would ask Americans on the first day of his presidency to commit to wearing a mask for a limited period in an effort to bring the transmission rates down from their current record levels.
“Just 100 days to mask, not forever – 100 days,” he told CNN. “And I think we’ll see a significant reduction.”
Fauci said separately Thursday that he had begun speaking with the incoming administration about plans for controlling the deadly virus and distributing a vaccine in the new year.
Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, a position he’s held since 1984. Ordinarily, Biden’s decision to keep him on would not be noteworthy, but because he’s come under fire from Trump, Fauci has emerged as a national symbol of sound medical advice.
Biden’s comments came against the backdrop of two grim daily records set by the U.S. on Wednesday, when more than 200,000 new coronavirus cases were reported and more than 100,000 patients were hospitalized.
Other officials who have been advising Biden on the novel coronavirus, which can cause the illness covid-19, and who could take key roles in the White House include Jeff Zients, who served as a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama, and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor at the Yale University school of medicine who specializes in health-care inequities. Politico reported Thursday that Zients was expected to become coronavirus coordinator and that Nunez-Smith would also take a senior position in Biden’s White House.
Murthy may also receive a White House title, beyond his surgeon general position, to signify that he is a central member of the team battling the pandemic, according to a person familiar with the matter who said it was possible that Murthy and Zients could be designated co-leaders of the effort.
One of the team’s central challenges will be in overseeing the logistically and ethically complex distribution of a coronavirus vaccine once it is approved. The decisions about who will fill these crucial jobs are not yet final, according to individuals familiar with the transition team’s work.
The search for a secretary of health and human services, the nation’s top health official, appears to be underway, with at least three people widely believed to have been under consideration no longer in contention. No front-runner is visible.
The position faced considerable turbulence under Trump; Tom Price, his first HHS secretary, resigned under an ethics cloud, and current Secretary Alex Azar has confronted the president’s displeasure.
Murthy had been one of the candidates under consideration by the Biden transition team for HHS secretary, but Biden’s transition leaders appear to be leaning toward a governor or someone else with more extensive management experience. Murthy is trained in internal medicine, has a public health background and is regarded as a skillful communicator, but he has not run a bureaucracy on the scale of the HHS.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, had been considered a leading candidate for HHS secretary, but she was said this week to be out of the running. Another prospect, Democratic Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, told WPRI 12 News on Thursday that she would not be taking the job.
“I am not going to be President-elect Biden’s nominee for HHS secretary,” she said. “My focus is right here in Rhode Island, as I have said.”
The statement was another jolt to a process that has seen several candidates floated as possibilities before quickly disappearing from contention.
In an interview on Thursday, Lujan Grisham said it was “flattering” to have been mentioned in connection with the HHS job and that she “deeply cares” about health care. But she said she has not had specific conversations about any particular position with members of Biden’s team.
“I have not talked to them,” she said. A co-chair of Biden’s transition efforts since September, Lujan Grisham said that she is “honored to do the transition work that I’m doing” and that Biden will ultimately pick a well-qualified HHS secretary.
“He’s got lots of folks to choose from,” said Lujan Grisham, who has been overseeing her own state’s response to a coronavirus surge that is overwhelming New Mexico hospitals.
The Biden team offered Lujan Grisham the role of interior department secretary, but she declined, a source familiar with the events said. On Thursday, the Democratic Governors Association announced that Lujan Grisham would serve as its chair for 2021.
The Biden team appears to be sending a message that it will be different from the Trump administration, which has often seemed at war with its own public health agencies. Trump criticized Fauci’s assessments and blasted the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine approval process, while flouting mask-wearing and other measures urged by his own public health officials.
Ronald Klain, who will be Biden’s White House chief of staff, probably will be particularly attuned to the coronavirus pandemic in part because he coordinated the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak.
As the pandemic enters a critical phase, with experts predicting an explosion of cases this winter, medical and public health advocates are pressing the Biden transition to include in the new administration’s Cabinet at least one person with a background in medicine or public health, whether that is Murthy or someone else.
Leana Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University and a former Baltimore health commissioner, wrote on Twitter that she was “thrilled” with Murthy’s appointment and would like to see the position given greater prominence.
“Medical groups are pushing for Surgeon General being a Cabinet role,” she wrote Thursday. “Pres-elect @JoeBiden should heed this, as he has with climate post, to solidify importance of public health in administration.” (Wen is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.)
Murthy, 43, served as surgeon general from late 2014 until a few months into Trump’s tenure. He issued the first surgeon general’s report on addiction, at a time when opioid overdoses had become a national crisis. Since then, Murthy has written a book about loneliness, which he casts as an epidemic in America.
Zients, who led the Obama administration’s National Economic Council, does not have a background in medicine or public health. But he maintains a close relationship with Biden, and he is credited with helping repair healthcare.gov, the Affordable Care Act’s insurance enrollment website, after a rocky rollout in 2013.
Fauci said Thursday that he had recently spoken with Zients, who is a co-chair of the Biden transition team, and that he expects to have more substantive talks with the team. Those talks, long delayed after the Trump administration spent weeks declining to acknowledge that Biden had won the election, were set to begin in earnest Thursday, Fauci said in an interview with MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It likely will be the first of a series of normal type of transition undertaking.”
Nominations for other key health-care positions could be announced as early as next week, according to people familiar with the planning.
Coordination between the various agencies and positions will be critical because of the worsening coronavirus crisis, which has killed at least 275,000 Americans and is rapidly spreading in much of the country, said Max Skidmore, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the author of a book on presidential responses to pandemics.
Skidmore said Biden would need to choose a team that could coordinate strategy smoothly among various government agencies, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the National Institutes of Health and the FDA.
“All of these and others need to have a unified approach,” Skidmore said. “We need a unified national program for public health, which we do not have, and that requires a team, but it also requires coordination of the team.”
Meanwhile, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also made progress in building her team, announcing Thursday that she had chosen Tina Flournoy as chief of staff, tapping an operative with decades of Washington experience to help run the vice-presidential operation.
Harris’s longtime aide Rohini Kosoglu will serve as her domestic policy adviser, and former ambassador to Bulgaria Nancy McEldowney will advise Harris on national security.
Flournoy had been serving as chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton, hovering out of the direct Washington spotlight for a few years after serving in several prominent roles in the Democratic Party throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
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The Washington Post’s Griff Witte, Matt Viser and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.