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Public Health Watch: Experts Call for ‘New Normal’ Strategy in COVID-19 Response

Former members of the Biden transition team recommend accepting that the virus is here to stay.

Three of the top infectious disease and public health specialists in the United States called on the Biden administration to update its “national strategy” for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a viewpoint published by JAMA on January 6, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, MD, PhD; Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH; and Celine R. Gounder, MD, ScM, all of whom served in late 2020 and early 2021 on the COVID-19 Advisory Board transition team for then-President-Elect Biden, urged the administration to establish “goals and strategies for the ‘new normal’ of life with COVID-19 and communicate them clearly to the public.

Their call to action comes at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are surging across much of the country due to the emergence of the Omicron variant and the onset of winter. They also parallel criticism aimed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in general, and its director, Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, regarding lack of clarity in its guidance.

“In delineating a national strategy, humility is essential,” Emanuel, Osterholm and Gounder wrote. Contagion reached out to Emanuel for comment but did not receive a response.

“It is imperative for public health, economic, and social functioning that US leaders establish and communicate specific goals for COVID-19 management, benchmarks for the imposition or relaxation of public health restrictions, investments and reforms needed to prepare for future SARS-CoV-2 variants and other novel viruses, and clear strategies to accomplish all of this,” they wrote.

Contrary to President Biden’s message last July that “we’ve gained the upper hand against this virus,” they recommend a strategy that recognizes the “new normal” with COVID-19 that “does not include eradication or elimination, but rather one that recognizes that the virus “is but one of several circulating respiratory viruses that include influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and more.” They also urge officials to learn lessons from this pandemic and prepare for future public health threats by “deploying real-time information systems, a public health implementation workforce, flexible health systems, trust in government and public health institutions, and belief in the value of collective action for public good.”

“After previous infectious disease threats, the US quickly forgot and failed to institute necessary reforms,” they wrote. “That pattern must change with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The JAMA viewpoint is hardly the only one to call into question the Biden administration’s pandemic response. Writing in the Guardian, Steven W. Thrasher, PhD, Daniel H. Renberg chair of social justice in reporting at Northwestern University, accused the administration of “fail[ing] its COVID test” with a “complicated…, limited…, and inadequate” plan for distributing at-home virus tests to the public at the beginning of the Omicron surge.

“A mantra of successful health campaigns is ‘make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Thrasher wrote. “But the Biden administration has been intent on making matters that should be easy difficult, prioritizing rules and regulations over results, deferring to private industry in matters of state responsibility, burdening individuals already at their breaking points, adding cumbersome barriers of time and logistics, being too slow, and displaying too much contempt and too little urgency in responding to cries for help.”

And, unlike Emanuel et al, he is less hopeful for the future. “[I]f neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to look forward, be proactive and deal with the root causes of this disaster, then despite our alleged wealth, I fear the US will continue to be the country with the most infections and deaths on planet Earth,” he wrote.

In short, our political and public health leaders need to start getting the pandemic response right. Soon.