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Opinion Distinguished persons of the week: The experts get to talk

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a news conference at the White House on Jan. 21. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, leaders of the administration’s covid-19 task force tell the American public all sorts of facts, from the number of vaccinations administered nationwide to the efficacy of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the steps underway to purchase enough vaccines to inoculate all Americans. The hearings are detailed and dry, but they are thoroughly reassuring in that experts are finally able to speak openly and without political restraints.

For example, members of President Biden’s covid-19 response team — including Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser; Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and senior adviser Andrew Slavitt — delivered a raft of data on Friday. Walensky did not mince words in detailing the pace of the virus: “We continue to have over four times the daily number of cases as we had over the summer. Through Jan. 27, 25.4 million covid-19 cases have been reported to CDC,” she said. “During the week of Jan. 21 to Jan. 27, the seven-day average of new cases decreased 16.6 percent to 161,832 per day.” She marched through the numbers on deaths and hospitalization and spoke about the deep concern regarding “the emergence of variants in the United States and are rapidly ramping up surveillance and sequencing activities as we work to closely monitor and identify variants as they emerge.”

Fauci, for his part, shared details about the new variants and the administration’s plans to expand vaccination to children by the summer. Slavitt reviewed the week’s developments, including the increase in vaccine supply, the administration’s goal to give governors a “three-week forward window” to know how much vaccine to expect and the purchase of “200 million additional vaccines, which means that no matter what happens with other approvals, we will have sufficient supply to vaccinate the country.” Slavitt added: “At the president’s direction, FEMA has increased its support to states, tribes and territories for vaccination sites. FEMA is providing nearly $1 billion to support vaccination sites in states and territories. More than 200 FEMA staff members are on the ground today, providing logistical support in eight states, and the agency is providing federal equipment and supplies to support states across the country.”

Slavitt also made a point to stress the need for more money from Congress so that the government could better surveil the spread of variants. “Look, if we as a country want to turbocharge our efforts at [sequencing the genetic information of viruses], which I believe should be a shared bipartisan perspective, we can do that," he said. "What we need is the Congress to quickly pass the American Rescue Plan, which contains the resources necessary to get all of our very, very talented people around the country, who are world experts at sequencing, to get on this as quickly as possible.”

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The experts patiently answered questions from reporters. They explained why prevention measures such as masks are still required. There were no snarky comments. There was no political member of the administration — let alone the president — present. The goal was to disseminate more, not less, information.

One need not be a scientist to appreciate the level of detail, professionalism, competence and candor on display. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of change that has taken place from the rampant disinformation and unhinged, politicized briefings of the last administration to the sober, professional communications we now see.

As it turns out, facts can be reassuring, and professionals can instill trust in public health in a way crazed politicians cannot. One can only imagine how many lives might have been saved had we had this team in place from the get-go. If only Republicans would tune in now, they might get a better appreciation for the urgency of rescue funds needed to eradicate the pandemic.

For their professional, careful work and public education efforts we can say, well done, Drs. Fauci and Walensky and Mr. Slavitt.

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