“You need the right people messaging,” said Vin Gupta, a professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation who served as an adviser to the Biden team. “None of this is hard conceptually — it’s about how you say it, and it’s about believability and authenticity.”
Messonnier, who is the CDC’s respiratory disease chief, and Anne Schuchat, who is the CDC’s principal deputy director, are among the government scientists whose warnings about the severity of the coronavirus ran afoul of President Donald Trump’s efforts to downplay the virus in its early months, infuriating senior White House officials. Both are expected to play large — and especially visible — roles in formulating the new administration’s policies.
“People like Anne Schuchat and Nancy Messonnier, I really hope are elevated in the discussion moving forward and empowered to communicate with the public,” said Celine Gounder, who sits on Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board.
Biden’s advisers anticipate the Covid-19 response will consume at least the first six months of his presidency, even in a best-case scenario. And while the incoming administration is preparing for a series of immediate logistical and policy challenges — from expanding testing to distributing vaccines — a simpler question has dominated the Biden team’s discussions: How to rally a fatigued and sharply divided American public.
When he takes office in January, Biden will confront a nation deeply skeptical of both public health interventions and federal agencies like the CDC and Food and Drug Administration that have spent the majority of the pandemic grappling with intense political pressure.
Those are dilemmas that the Biden team has spent weeks focused on solving, with advisers describing the need to return to the traditional pandemic playbook that guided prior administrations through health crises like the Ebola and H1N1 crises.
Transition officials are still hammering out specifics, a person close to Biden said, and the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge the transition has prevented them from speaking with federal officials like Messonnier and Schuchat about their roles in the next administration. But the Biden team views it as “job one” to “reestablish trust in the science and empower the personnel” at the CDC.
“There’s a lot of focus on how much the career people at CDC have been completely undermined and diminished,” the person close to Biden said. “Our job is not just their empowerment, but their integration in the development of policy and implementation of policy.”
The reemergence of Messonnier and Schuchat, who have barely been heard from in public since angering the Trump administration, is seen as crucial to boosting morale within the CDC, multiple people close to the transition said — since, alongside infectious-disease chief Anthony Fauci, they are among the federal government’s most accomplished public health experts.
Messonnier in particular is well-positioned to play a significant role in mass vaccination efforts, having spent the last few months quietly leading preparations for the nationwide distribution of one or more Covid-19 vaccines and working with states to coordinate shipment and administration of millions of shots over the next year.
Biden officials assembling his pandemic response team have similarly prioritized finding other figures who are good communicators and already have deep credibility with both the health community and broader public, people familiar with the process said.
That search has often focused on both prominent public health figures and doctors with experience on the front lines of the pandemic — as evidenced by Biden’s selection for his Covid-19 advisory board of high-profile writer and surgeon Atul Gawande and University of California, San Francisco health expert Robert Rodriguez, who is also an emergency room doctor.
“I think that if we lead with science and scientists, putting them front and center to talk to the public directly so people can hear scientific information from the source, if we get people the information they need through clear evidence-based guidance, we will ultimately get good results,” Vivek Murthy, the co-chair of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, told reporters in a briefing earlier this week.
At least some of those on the 13-member board are expected to join Biden’s White House Covid-19 team when he takes office, one person with knowledge of the planning said, where they’d coordinate response work across the government and brief Biden directly.
While Biden does intend to select a point person to coordinate the Covid-19 response across government agencies, overseeing a team of officials, it remains unclear whether he’ll have a primary spokesperson for their work. Yet his administration is looking to enlist a slate of career health officials and political appointees to reinforce the government’s messaging on the virus — with a particular focus on building trust in the communities of color hardest hit by Covid-19 and critical to eventually ending the pandemic.
“We have special populations that require special responses,” said Eric Goosby, who also sits on Biden’s advisory board, adding that the team also plans to work closely with state and local officials to ensure they reinforce the government’s guidance. “People have gotten so confounded with the messaging that it’ll take a while to get us all thinking the same way.”
By making sure the government speaks with one voice, they’re looking to avoid the kind of mixed signals sent on Thursday, when the CDC recommended against Thanksgiving travel the same day the White House press secretary called such guidance “Orwellian.”
But the Biden team’s planned PR blitz will test his administration’s ability to coordinate its outreach and messaging across a sprawling set of federal agencies in its first days, with little room for error.
The Biden team weathered its first major disconnect earlier this month, after Michael Osterholm — an infectious disease expert on Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board — suggested a 4- to 6-week nationwide lockdown to curb the virus’ surge. Others on the board quickly distanced themselves, wary of feeding GOP accusations that Biden would try to shutter the economy. Osterholm himself soon backed off the remarks, emphasizing that he hadn’t discussed the idea with others.
“We’re not advocating a national lockdown or anything like that,” Gounder said, adding that Osterholm’s musings on the matter did “not represent the board.”
And the incoming administration is already running into opposition in red states, both from GOP officials and voters opposed to the stricter health measures that have become partisan litmus tests under the Trump administration.
Messonnier was among the first officials targeted for saying that the crisis was worse than Trump was letting on, telling reporters on Feb. 25 that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.” That message — which came the same day that top Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow declared the virus “contained” — caught the White House by surprise and sent the stock market reeling.
Prominent conservatives like Rush Limbaugh soon seized on the fact that Messonnier is the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who oversaw the Mueller probe, spinning up conspiratorial and baseless theories that she was overhyping the pandemic threat to undermine the president.
The Trump administration abruptly ended the CDC’s regular briefings on the virus, and began running the response out of the White House briefing room — where Trump routinely used press conferences to downplay the crisis and lob political attacks at Democratic governors.
By October, polling found stark divides in trust in the public health institutions: Just 43 percent of people whose Covid-19 news came primarily from Trump and his task force believed the CDC and other agencies got their facts right about the pandemic most or all of the time, versus 70 percent of people who relied on other sources for Covid-19 news.
And though the briefings have largely ended, Trump has kept using his social media platform to assert baseless claims about the pandemic — such as attributing the surge in cases to an increase in testing and accusing doctors of inflating death counts for profit — messaging that is likely to continue after he leaves the White House.
“It’s not going to be easy to put the genie back in the bottle once there’s been so much mistrust and misinformation,” cautioned former Obama administration CDC Director Tom Frieden. “How do you rebuild trust in science when people are spouting unscientific nonsense on social media?”
Biden has said he will rely heavily on the career scientists that Trump cast aside to close the partisan gap and, over time, restore confidence in public health.
It’s a recognition that much of the success of the response by the time he takes office will rest on selling Americans on public health measures and mass vaccinations — and that, after a year of disjointed messaging from the White House, any politician, including Biden, might not be the nation’s best salesperson to a skeptical public.
“Trust has to be earned,” said Nicole Lurie, a former assistant secretary of emergency and preparedness under the Obama administration who has advised Biden’s Covid-19 response. “It’s not like you can pull the switch and instantly everybody says things are okay now.”