Joe Biden vowed on Monday to spare no effort in tackling the coronavirus pandemic as soon as he enters the White House and warned the US is “facing a very dark winter”.
Speaking in a televised address to the nation – little more than 48 hours after he was announced the winner of the presidential election – the Democrat said he was ready to get to work, laying out plans as the pandemic on Monday was approaching 10m cases.
The US has experienced record new infections in recent days, a figure expected to significantly worsen before the former vice-president’s inauguration on 20 January. According to Johns Hopkins university, as of Sunday the coronavirus had killed 237,570 people in the US and had infected more than 9.9 million.
While he welcomed Pfizer’s announcement earlier in the day that it has found a vaccine that it believes is 90% effective, he warned America could lose 200,000 more lives in the next few months before a vaccine becomes available.
“I will spare no effort to turn this pandemic around once we’re sworn in on 20 January,” he said, speaking to the camera from his home town of Wilmington, Delaware.
“Get our kids back to school safely, our businesses growing and our economy running at full speed again. And get an approved vaccine manufactured and distributed as quickly as possible to as many Americans as possible free of charge. We’ll follow the science.”
But he warned that the challenge ahead was “immense and growing”. “Although we are not in office yet, I’m just laying out what we expect to do and hope can be done, some of it, between now and the time we’re sworn in.”
He added: “There’s a need for bold action to fight this pandemic. We’re still facing a very dark winter.”
Citing statistics that show the US topped 120,000 new cases on several consecutive days last week and rising infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths, he said: “This crisis claims nearly 1,000 American lives a day. Nearly 240,000 deaths so far. The projections still indicate we could lose 200,000 more lives in the coming months before a vaccine can be made widely available.”
On mask-wearing, Biden said: “Please, I implore you, wear a mask. Do it for yourself, do it for your neighbour. A mask is not a political statement, but it is a good way to start pulling the country together.”
Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, was also present but did not speak.
The announcement came after Biden’s transition team unveiled a coronavirus advisory board of 13 public health experts. The taskforce will be led by three co-chairs: the former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, the ex-food and drug administration commissioner David Kessler and Dr Marcella Nunez-Smith of Yale.
Other experts on the taskforce include Dr Ezekiel Emanuel, a former Obama health adviser and one of the creators of the Affordable Care Act, and Rick Bright, a former top vaccine official from the Trump administration and a whistleblower.
The advisory board, he said, would create a “blueprint” to be put in place as soon as the Biden administration is sworn into office. “This group will advise on detailed plans, build on a bedrock of science and … keep compassion, empathy and care for every American at its core.”
Outlining some of their plans, Biden said there would be increased rapid testing, contact tracing, “clear and detailed guidance” for schools and small businesses, a scaling up of treatments and therapeutics and, when it is ready, distributing a vaccine “equitably and efficiently and free for every American”.
He also said his administration plans to better protect vulnerable at-risk populations and address racial disparities. “Folks in these communities [are] one of our priorities, not an afterthought,” he said.
Echoing the comments he made in his victory speech on Saturday night, he again reiterated that he would be “a president for every American” adding: “This election is over.”
The goal, he said, was “to get back to normal as fast as possible”. He added: “Masks are critical in doing that. It won’t be forever, but that’s how we’ll get our nation back. Back up to speed economically, so we can go back to celebrating birthdays and holidays together, so we can attend sporting events together, so we can get back to the lives and the connections we shared before the pandemic.”
It marked a stark change in direction and tone from Donald Trump who, as well as contracting the virus himself, has repeatedly ignored the advice of scientists, often eschewed mask use, declined to issue a national mask mandate, presided over a White House Covid-19 outbreak and stunned the world when he suggested bleach as a potential cure.
After the announcement about a possible vaccine, Trump, who has still refused to concede, tweeted that it was “SUCH GREAT NEWS!” Meanwhile, the vice-president, Mike Pence, tried to credit Trump with the breakthrough – despite Pfizer’s senior vice-president, Kathrin Janse, telling the New York Times the company did not participate in the government’s Operation Warp Speed or take any of its money.