WASHINGTON — In early March, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign unfurled a public health advisory committee composed of half a dozen heavyweight experts to advise on how best to operate a campaign on a trail that was becoming increasingly dangerous as coronavirus infections spread across the country.
The announcement was seemingly designed to, as the New York Times characterized it, “project calm and competence” less than a week after the Trump White House began its chaotic and often antagonistic daily briefings. There was a perception that Biden, in contrast, would have a foil group — a former surgeon general for every MyPillow founder.
Yet in the weeks since Biden’s advisory group was put in place, the campaign staff it was intended to advise have retreated into their respective homes, and in Biden’s case, the book-shelf-lined recreation room of his house in Wilmington, Del.
And while President Trump appears nightly on national television with some of the government’s top health experts — even if sometimes interrupting or contradicting them — Biden’s advisers are rarely heard from. That is, though, because Biden’s advisers weren’t meant to be public faces of the former vice president’s coronavirus policy, but rather to provide essentially practical advice for the campaign.
The committee was not convened to create policy, but “instead brought on to provide public health advice,” said Rebecca Katz, an expert in global health security and pandemic preparedness, who is on the committee.
“I’m here to help explain to anyone who asks — but particularly to the campaign — any questions they have in understanding what’s happening with the outbreak and talking through some of the evidence that is emerging,” Katz said.
Along with Katz, the group currently includes several former top Obama aides, including former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco, former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel. Clinical professor Dr. Irwin Redlener, who was initially part of the committee, stepped down after accepting an MSNBC contributor deal.
Katz explained that the entire group has one official call with the campaign each week to help answer questions and offer advice on “best public health practices.” The experts keep in touch via text and email too. While she wouldn’t disclose the specific content of the conversations, Katz said the group could give the campaign and the vice president clarity on changing guidance, such as the use of face masks.
While the committee by design has more of a behind-the-scenes role, as Biden’s campaign is forced online, the question going forward may be whether he’s disadvantaged by having such an inward-focused public health group, particularly while the White House he’s running against is so outward facing. Trump every evening stands next to Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who have become instrumental to the public’s understanding of the virus through widespread media coverage.
As it stands, the formal Biden coronavirus task force, according to the campaign, is still solely guiding operational decisions: suggesting how many staff could safely work from Biden’s Wilmington office and how to make voting and conventions possibly tenable, among other related topics. There are some public aspects of that advice, however.
“One of the things the committee did as a whole, and the campaign deserves a lot of credit, is we said, ‘Close Philadelphia. Everyone works from home,’” said Kessler, the former FDA commissioner. “And within two hours they put it into place. It was on the 13th, relatively early on. We said stop.”
Questions about the Biden campaign’s visibility emerged over the past months, as critics voiced concern that the former vice president was not blanketing the airwaves as Trump and his senior advisers held hours-long briefings each day. On a March 20 press call, Biden, when asked if he’d be willing to appear in his own briefing-style stream regarding coronavirus alongside his committee, seemed enthusiastic and said “God willing” they would begin by the following Monday.
“We’re in the process of setting up the mechanisms by which we can do that,” Biden said, adding that it’s “above my pay grade.”
Though members of the coronavirus task force and the campaign say conversations about having the group brief the public have not happened, a campaign aide said it hasn’t been ruled out.
In the meantime, most of the members of the panel have kept a low profile and do not appear as campaign surrogates on television. Four did not respond to — or declined — requests for interviews from Yahoo News.
Yet even working behind the scenes, two members of the group — Murthy and Kessler — do appear to be actively engaged with the campaign, briefing Biden daily on the coronavirus. They do so, however, not as part of the advisory committee but as members of a separate rotating group of experts who speak to Biden each morning, according to the campaign. Murthy has also joined Biden for two live-streamed town halls, and Kessler has spoken with media in North Carolina and Texas.
Together, the group of experts compile a 20-some-odd-page document with maps, graphics, data on drugs, vaccine testings, etc., which is provided several times a day. The campaign declined to say who the other experts were who appear on the morning call.
Kessler said topics of the morning call vary widely and are meant to inform Biden for his digital town halls, calls with reporters and media appearances, and make their way into the campaign’s policy proposals. Those experts present the latest data and walk the campaign through various modelings and scenarios of how the virus could evolve.
“He absorbs everything we give him,” said Kessler. “The data shape his thinking and his policy. He is very respectful of scientific expertise. He does rely greatly on scientific expertise.”
In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Biden said those experts speak to him for at least 90 minutes each day.
That advice does appear to be making its way into his thinking. The former vice president has been vocal about Trump’s repeated delay in using the Defense Production Act to ensure the steady supply of medical equipment, and frustrated about the lack of widespread testing. Biden also asked to delay the Democratic National Convention, calling into question the safety of a mass gathering in July. The DNC then pushed the convention to mid-August.
Dr. Kavita Patel, former senior official in the Obama administration and a Yahoo News health contributor, said she worries the Biden campaign is missing an opportunity to make better use of his team of experts.
“I am surprised that it is limited given the stature of who is on the task force,” she said. “There is an opportunity to tap into global expertise on medicine, public health, economics and national security.”
Patel says she thinks Biden’s team could fill a void given the the lack of a “unified, clear, calming voice” from the current Trump briefings.
“They have the ability to reach the media,” she said of Biden’s public health advisory committee, “and if they come together under the vice president, then I think it offers even more of that unified credibility.”
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