The White House is coming under growing pressure from President-elect Joe Biden, as well as senior Republicans and health experts, to allow transition talks to begin amid a terrifying surge in coronavirus cases that is pushing hospital systems across the US to the brink of collapse.
As Donald Trump insisted he would not concede defeat – despite tweeting that Biden “won” last week’s election – Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, said on Sunday it was essential that a “seamless transition” begins quickly, given the severity of the pandemic.
He told NBC’s Meet the Press Biden’s Covid advisory panel remains hamstrung from talking to US government health officials including the White House taskforce led by Vice-President Mike Pence.
Under transition rules routinely followed for the past 60 years, a letter of “ascertainment” declaring Biden the winner of the 3 November election should by now have been issued by the General Services Administration (GSA), authorising communication between the outgoing and incoming administrations.
But with Trump still refusing to concede, as he lies repeatedly on Twitter about a “stolen election”, no such letter has been produced.
“Unfortunately until we get that GSA ascertainment that authorises us to contact government officials we can’t have any contacts,” Klain said.
Klain, whose approach to coronavirus carries weight given his successful marshalling of the federal response as “Ebola tsar” in 2014, said the block on communications was especially damaging around preparations for a vaccine. Hopes soared this week when Pfizer/BioNTech announced its candidate was 90% effective in protecting people from the infection.
The White House has said some 20m doses of the vaccine could be ready for distribution to vulnerable populations such as older people in nursing homes by the end of December.
Biden’s transition team will meet Pfizer and other producers this week, Klain said. But he added: “The bigger issue is the mechanism of manufacture and distribution – getting this vaccine out. Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations save lives – it’s a giant logistical problem.
“Trump’s Twitter feed doesn’t make Joe Biden president or not president, the American people did that. What we want to see is the GSA issue that ascertainment so we can meet vaccine officials.”
The note of urgency and frustration evident from Biden’s chief of staff reflected the intensity of a coronavirus crisis that is surging in all parts of the US. Friday saw records shattered with 184,000 new cases. Deaths are increasing in 31 states, the toll fast approaching a quarter of a million.
The lack of transition talks is not only hampering preparations for a vaccine. It is also preventing Biden’s administration-in-waiting from gaining up-to-the-minute information on stockpiles of essential protective equipment for health workers, including gloves and masks.
A Guardian/Kaiser Health News investigation, Lost on the Frontline, has identified at least 1,375 health workers who have died in the US from Covid-19.
The chorus of demands on the Trump administration to begin cooperating with Biden, despite the president’s increasingly perverse refusal to admit defeat, has been joined by a number of senior Republicans. Among them on Sunday was John Bolton, Trump’s former US national security adviser.
Bolton told ABC’s This Week that by making it as difficult as possible for the incoming administration, Trump was acting “ultimately to the country’s disadvantage, certainly in the national security space and I think given the coronavirus pandemic and the effective distribution of the vaccine. We need a transition and we should proceed with it as quickly as we can.”
Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, which is struggling with a devastating rise in infections, told CNN’s State of the Union: “We know now that Joe Biden is president-elect and that transition for the country’s sake is important. We need to begin that process.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases official and a member of the White House taskforce, joined the calls for the transition blockage to be lifted.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper if a normal transition would be to the benefit of public health, were he and other experts allowed to work with the Biden team, he replied: “Of course, that’s obvious. Of course it would be better if we could starting working with them.”
As the calls mount for Trump to get out of the way, the president himself has been virtually silent on the public health disaster swirling around him. According to Fauci, Trump has not attended a meeting of the coronavirus taskforce for “several months”.
The last time Trump physically sat in on the discussions was at least five months ago, the Washington Post reported.
Apart from spreading falsehoods about the election, Trump spent the weekend playing golf at his course in Sterling, Virginia.
Though the death rate from Covid-19 remains lower than its April peak, there are fears that fatalities will also rise when hospitals become overrun. That point is getting close in several states throughout the midwest, including Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, gave NBC a chilling vision of what could lie ahead.
“My worst fear,” he said, “is what we saw in other countries, where people were literally dying in the waiting room of emergency rooms after spending 10 hours waiting to be seen.
“That will start to happen, the media will start reporting it, and we will see the breadth and depth of this tragedy.”