Statement by Vice President Joe Biden and the Biden for President Public Health Advisory Committee on Testing
We all agree on the need to reopen the economy and allow some semblance of normalcy as soon as possible. The economic pain and suffering are simply too great to delay unnecessarily. But it is wrong to talk about “choosing” between our public health and our economy. That’s a false choice. If we don’t beat the virus, we will never get back to full economic strength. And the experience of other nations and past pandemics is teaching us that we have to be prepared for a resurgence of cases that could once again stretch the capacity of our health care system and threaten lives.
Public health experts agree there are several keys to safely re-opening the economy and rebuilding the confidence of the American people in their government’s ability to protect them. We need to boost the capacity of our health care system and better protect our health care workers by ramping up the production — and ensuring the fair distribution — of critical equipment like masks and other personal protective equipment, as the Biden for President campaign has repeatedly called for. We need to test and trace contacts of people who have been infected with COVID-19. And we need clear guidance, oversight, and resources for workplaces to keep employees as safe as possible. Are those elements in place? What will it take to put them in place?
So far, the United States has conducted 5 million COVID-19 tests for our population of 330 million people. In recent days the number of tests has climbed, but no one who has studied the facts thinks this is sufficient. We are still seeing a massive shortfall and extensive disparities between states in testing — that’s unacceptable. And those failures are in no small part due to the federal government mishandling and delaying the pandemic response. We are now several months into this crisis, and this administration refuses to own up to the original sin of its failed response — the failure to test. Failed leadership, bureaucracy, and a lack of urgency have slowed the testing production process and continue to put us behind nations like Italy, Canada, and Germany in terms of per capita testing. Last week, we marked the deaths of 50,000 people from COVID-19 in the United States — each one a life cut tragically short. Our nation is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic with more known cases than any other nation in the world.
This isn’t rocket science. It just takes investment and execution — both of which have been gravely lacking. Vice President Biden has repeatedly called for President Trump to stand up a Pandemic Testing Board, just as FDR created a War Production Board to massively scale up the production and allocation of equipment and supplies we needed to fight and win World War II. The Board should have members from the public and private sectors — and involve state and local leaders, too. It would oversee a nationwide campaign to provide both diagnostic and antibody tests, which includes surging the production of test kits and lab supplies; coordinating the distribution to every state, tribe, and territory; identifying testing sites and sufficient trained personnel to staff them; ensuring adequate lab capacity and the swift reporting of results; and providing clear guidance on who needs a test. A nationwide campaign has to be well-coordinated and highly agile — able to adjust quickly to accommodate new scientific developments or respond to sudden bottlenecks by evaluating a variety of approaches, from rapid point-of-care tests to in-home sample collection, as Seattle has done.
We should better utilize our great university and medical school research laboratories, which spent precious resources equipping their facilities to run COVID-19 tests, yet now sit idle. Let’s harness that capacity to help drastically ramp up our capacity to process these tests
And we shouldn’t just test more, we should test smarter. Right now, because of shortages of tests and personnel protective equipment and related challenges, we are still only largely testing the sickest people we suspect have COVID-19, so they can be isolated and cared for. Smart testing would focus on individuals who are at heightened risk, like nursing home residents, as well as those who interact with many people each day, including health care workers, grocery store workers, public safety officials, public transportation employees, and others.
Time is not on our side. It is urgent we get these pieces in place and functioning smoothly at full capacity before flu season arrives in the fall, when experts say we could experience a second wave of COVID-19 cases. Testing alone is not enough. We also need Apollo-like moonshots to develop and deploy proven therapeutics and vaccines globally if we are ever to gain the upper hand on this virus. We cannot allow this administration to repeat its failure on testing with therapeutics and vaccines. We must let science — not politicians — lead. We should set the goal of identifying safe, effective therapeutics within 100 days by building on long-standing, proven clinical trial networks — which helped save millions of lives in the fight against AIDS — with a new enduring Emerging Infectious Disease Clinical Trial Network and equipping it with every resource at our disposal. Instead of having different studies competing with each other for resources and patients, this new clinical trial network would bring scientific talent together behind the most promising drugs. And, we should be working now to accelerate a coordinated global approach to develop a safe, effective vaccine and the manufacturing capacity for the doses and related materials like syringes that we will need at home and around the world. The only way to stop COVID-19 here, is to stop it everywhere.
In the meantime, however, testing is the springboard we need to help get our economy safely up and running again. Trump could make this happen. He hasn’t. Instead, he’s pushed sole responsibility to governors, while telling them to fly blind without the critical data we derive from testing. If the Biden Administration were in office today, it would have prioritized this testing issue months ago. Since the Trump Administration both can’t and won’t, Congress should step in and establish the Pandemic Testing Board, giving it the authority and funding it needs to succeed.
Once we identify COVID-19 infected people, we need to isolate them and identify those to whom they might have unwittingly spread the disease. This is called contact tracing, and our public health professionals do it every day to halt the transmission of infectious diseases already in our midst, including for tuberculosis and measles. To battle a pandemic as large as COVID-19, it will require not just new privacy-protecting technology, but also trained people.
Through tough times in our past, generations of Americans have stood up and selflessly answered the call to serve their fellow citizens. We need to harness this spirit of empathy, decency, and unity today and form a new U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps of at least 100,000 people to mobilize Americans across the country, including AmeriCorps and Peace Corps Volunteers and those laid off by the crisis. Massachusetts has already launched its own. The U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps could serve in a variety of important functions, including ensuring contact tracing reaches every underserved community in America — ideally by members of those communities themselves. Already the data shows these communities are being left behind, even as they are suffering the brunt of the pandemic. Perhaps even more importantly, the U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps would become the permanent foundation for a stronger national community public health service that could eventually transition to fight the opioid epidemic and address other national public health priorities.
Finally, we need to be working right now on the conditions under which the private sector, industry by industry, can reopen safely. During the H1N1 epidemic, the Obama-Biden Administration tasked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control with issuing detailed guidance for how employers should protect their workers. Then OSHA enforced the law based on those guidelines. And it didn’t stop there. After the epidemic, it spent years preparing for the next one with a comprehensive and specific permanent infectious disease standard that would have required health facilities and certain other high exposure workplaces to permanently implement infection control programs to protect their workers. The Obama-Biden Administration handed this standard to the Trump Administration, but instead of moving it to rulemaking, the Trump Administration shelved it.
Today, the Trump Administration is still not driving a serious enforcement effort, putting the health and safety of workers at risk every day. We should immediately double the number of OSHA investigators to enforce the law and existing standards and guidelines, release and enforce an Emergency Temporary Standard to give employers and employees more comprehensive and specific guidance on what to do to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and get to work bringing a permanent standard to conclusion and expanding it to include all relevant workplaces, from manufacturing plants to grocery stores.
We want our country to get moving and healthy again. But we must take the necessary, rational steps, grounded in science, to do so safely, so COVID-19 doesn’t come roaring back, shredding our still-fragile health care system and the green shoots of an economic reopening. Donald Trump says he’s a wartime president. It’s time for him to take responsibility and act like one.
Biden for President Public Health Advisory Committee Members:
- Dr. Zeke Emanuel, Vice Provost of Global Initiatives and University Professor, Perelman School of Medicine and The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania
- Dr. Rebecca Katz, Associate Professor, the Department of Microbiology & Immunology and Co-Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University
- Dr. David Kessler, Former Commissioner, U.S. Food & Drug Administration and Professor of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco
- Dr. Nicole Lurie, Distinguished Health Policy Fellow, Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI), The University of Pennsylvania
- Lisa Monaco, Former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor to President Obama
- Dr. Vivek Murthy, 19th Surgeon General of the United States
Note: University affiliations are for identification purposes only.