The Biden-Harris administration faces daunting challenges. Chief among them is tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and bending the case curve. This challenge cannot be met, let alone overcome, without a national plan plus substantial new investment in public health, science, and technology. And it will require prioritizing science over politics.
The recent election was particularly divisive. Those who have been elected or reelected now have a responsibility to heal the nation — not only from the pandemic but also from the bitter partisan divide.
Science can help on both counts.
Like so many parts of our culture, however, science has become polarized, with leaders from both parties struggling to agree on even basic facts and guidance relating to the pandemic. Should we wear masks? Should we be social distancing? What should we do to help children return safely to in-person school?
These are questions with answers that have been well-established by research, yet we see differing viewpoints and policies at work across the U.S. The result is a haphazard, patchwork approach that has been chaotic, fragmented, and weak compared to how other developed nations have confronted Covid-19. As each day passes, the U.S. is breaking new records for infections and deaths. We urgently need a national strategy, but one cannot be achieved and implemented unless we bring both parties together.
Numerous studies have shown that the nation’s local and state pandemic responses have varied by political affiliation. For example, partisanship was found to be associated with differences in adherence to physical distancing and stay-at-home orders. A recent Pew survey uncovered stark differences in how voters supporting different presidential candidates viewed the importance of the pandemic in the recent election.
Yet the overwhelming majority of Americans agree that the solution isn’t either do nothing or lock down entirely. A recent poll found that 65% support a combination of targeted interventions, personal behavior change, and sheltering in place.
Science can serve as the nonpartisan voice to navigate this middle-of-the-road approach. To help heal political divisions, elected officials should allow scientists and public health experts to be the key spokespersons on the pandemic.
Polling has shown that the public continues to be skeptical of politicians, especially those of a differing party, yet trust in medical scientists and health care providers remains high. A national plan in concert with a stronger voice for science will go a long way in unifying messaging about fundamental prevention strategies like wearing masks and physical distancing. We must allow science to be a nonpartisan messenger that advances the public health of Americans rather than a political agenda.
Science is on the verge of delivering not one, not two, but multiple viable vaccine candidates in record time. Unfortunately, political interference at the Food and Drug Administration has tarnished the reputation of the agency while diminishing public trust in vaccines and the approval process.
Elected officials can help restore the FDA’s integrity by pledging to avoid interfering with the agency’s gold-standard scientific review. Those same officials must also acknowledge the efforts of agency staff who, despite expending tremendous effort on behalf of public health, have been wrongly targeted, publicly criticized, and in some cases fired by political officials. Undermining the talented and dedicated U.S. public health workforce is a recipe for disaster. If we are to overcome the myriad challenges posed by the pandemic, we need a strong public health workforce supported by leaders of all political parties.
The need to address vaccine hesitancy is also essential. After all, what good is a 90% effective vaccine if a majority of Americans choose not to take it? The Department of Health and Human Services has begun targeted outreach to associations and organizations that can play a pivotal role in improving vaccine confidence. We urge the Biden-Harris administration to build on these efforts with a larger vaccine confidence project to help the public understand the safety and effectiveness of these new vaccines.
Simultaneously, a coordinated national engagement strategy is needed to encourage health care providers to reach out to their patients before the FDA approves one or more vaccines or grants emergency use authorization. Polling has shown that personal medical providers are among the most trusted messengers and could be pivotal in educating their patients and improving vaccine acceptance. Delaying this outreach will result in low uptake of approved vaccines and needlessly perpetuate the spread of the disease while slowing our economic recovery.
Science is uniquely positioned to help end the scourge of the pandemic and set us on a course to rebuild our economy. But getting there requires our political leaders to come together to prioritize and champion public health. We are seeing a tale of two Americas unfold, dramatically hampering our ability to effectively respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope leaders of both parties will work together to bring our nation back to a more unified, healthy, and secure future.
Tom Daschle is a former U.S. Senate majority leader (D-S.D.), founder and CEO of The Daschle Group, and cofounder of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Bill Frist is a physician, former Senate majority leader (R-Tenn.), senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and a cochair of the center’s work on health innovation. Max G. Bronstein is the founder of the Journal of Science Policy & Governance and principal at MGB Consulting.