Opinion: Here’s what’s missing from Biden’s Covid-19 plan


As infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said last month, “If you are fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting until the cavalry gets here.”
Thankfully, the Biden-Harris transition team has already released an initial Covid-19 plan and named its own team in charge of the pandemic response, with Fauci serving as a chief medical adviser. However, these initial efforts are lacking in two significant ways.
First, although the plan addresses mask wearing and physical distancing as part of a broad “evidence-based guidance for how communities should navigate the pandemic,” it doesn’t emphasize the federal government’s role in creating its own educational program and directing messages broadly to the American public.
Second, the expertise of the 16-member pandemic response team named by President-elect Joe Biden is impressive, but the group consists mainly of medical doctors (nine in total). Two members have a background in the world of public health and supervise health communication efforts, but the task force does not include a single member whose primary training and expertise is in the behavioral or social sciences, or in public health education or communication.

To date, there has not been a concerted national educational campaign to inform and persuade Americans with consistent messages about the crucial need for physical distancing, wearing masks and other measures that can help stop the spread of Covid-19.

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The task of educating the public about disease prevention has been left largely to the media, individual states and local jurisdictions, leading to contradictory measures. The messaging depends heavily on location and the political whims of the people in charge. Political battles, at times, have seemed to take priority over simple prevention measures that could save thousands of lives.
The early efforts by the Biden-Harris team are encouraging, and the incoming administration has begun to plan “how to communicate in the most creative, transparent and effective ways to reach Americans where they are.” But mounting the formidable battle against the spread of the virus requires a comprehensive, national campaign that spells out in simple terms — with consistent, engaging, and compelling messages — a crucial point that the Trump administration was not willing to articulate: Covid-19 is preventable and can be eradicated if each of us engages consistently in preventive practices and if we pursue testing after a possible exposure.
As we know from fighting other deadly viruses and diseases, including HIV, those behaviors must be promoted and reinforced on an ongoing basis, including by those in positions of leadership at the national level.
The arrival of a vaccine will only heighten the importance of public health education. Now that the US Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency authorization to the first two vaccines — developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna — national efforts to educate the general public about Covid-19 vaccination will quickly become an urgent need. Messages about the advantages of vaccination, the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and which groups should seek to be vaccinated and when, will be essential. After all, the success of vaccination presupposes that people are motivated to seek it out.
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This national prevention, education and awareness campaign would strengthen measures being promoted at the state and local levels. It could encourage Americans to feel a strong sense of moral responsibility to care for one another — just the opposite of what we heard from President Donald Trump, who, in effect, launched his own personal, national campaign against mask wearing by refusing to wear a mask, allowing his supporters to rally without them, and even mocking Biden for wearing one. (From time to time, Trump has been somewhat more supportive of masks, but his message has remained largely inconsistent.)
A national campaign would help offset the information (or lack thereof) in those states where governors have been reluctant to promote masks, model their use or make it mandatory to wear them in public places.
In Taiwan, one of the countries with the highest rates of success in controlling Covid-19, a national educational program has been credited with reinforcing a high rate of compliance with mask wearing, as part of a broad strategy that also addresses medical and cultural issues, as well as social disparities.
To date, Taiwan has had just 785 Covid-19 cases, a stark contrast to the more than 19 million infections in the United States, where the whopping 5,812 cases per 100,000 people is close to 2,000 times larger.

Granted, Taiwan is much smaller than the US and has different social conditions. But the point is that from the early days of the pandemic, its government recognized the value of a national educational program to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which has allowed the country to simultaneously protect its economy.

By themselves, national public health education campaigns are no panacea, but they can be important components in the toolkit of prevention measures.

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