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Biden criticizes Trump’s coronavirus effort, vows extensive federal response

President-elect Joe Biden on Dec. 29 said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to boost the production of vaccine materials and protective equipment. (Video: The Washington Post)

President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday cast President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as meager and insufficient, as he vowed to fully use the federal government’s powers once inaugurated to speed the production and dispersal of vaccines and protective equipment.

Biden said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of materials needed for the coronavirus vaccines. The law, enacted in 1950, gives the president the power to compel companies to produce and distribute supplies. Trump has invoked the act several times to increase the manufacturing of ventilators, among other items.

Biden said that the Trump administration has yet to fully scale up testing — “that’s a travesty,” he said — and that its vaccine distribution efforts were also lagging behind what had been promised.

Although federal officials initially promised to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of this year, only 11.5 million doses have been distributed by the federal government and only 20 percent of those have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If the current rate continues, Biden said, it will “take years, not months, to vaccinate the American people.”

“The Trump administration’s plan to distribute vaccines is falling behind, far behind,” Biden said in a brief speech in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday afternoon. “As I long feared and warned, the effort to distribute and administer the vaccine is not progressing as it should.”

Biden’s incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told NPR on Tuesday that some of Trump’s political appointees have not shared vital information about the progress of the vaccine distribution with the transition team.

Health experts expect coronavirus to become endemic, existing permanently in the population. This is due to human behavior continuing to drive transmission. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Trump responded to Biden on Twitter on Tuesday evening by shifting blame to state officials, whom he said are responsible for distribution.

“It is up to the States to distribute the vaccines once brought to the designated areas by the Federal Government,” he wrote. “We have not only developed the vaccines, including putting up money to move the process along quickly, but gotten them to the states.”

Trump’s tweet underscored the deep differences between his approach and the one promised by his successor. Trump has regularly put responsibility for acquiring protective supplies and arranging testing — and now distributing vaccines — on state governments stretched as they deal with the twin catastrophes of the pandemic and the economic collapse. At times that approach has set states at odds, vying for items as essential as masks for hospital workers.

Biden has vowed a far more robust and unified federal response that would utilize the heft of the U.S. government to prevent state competition.

The president-elect said he would find ways to speed up the production of vaccines and their distribution so that one million people can be vaccinated each day, which he said would be five to six times the current rate.

“I have directed my team to prepare a much more aggressive effort, with more federal involvement and leadership to get things back on track,” Biden said. “We’ll find ways to boost the pace of vaccinations. . . . This will take more time than anyone would like and more time than the promises from the Trump administration have suggested.”

The president-elect made clear that the deadly fallout of Trump’s missteps will continue for several weeks, if not months, into his administration, as those who are exposed to the virus this month will appear in new cases and deaths weeks from now.

Biden said he expects “soaring case counts in January and soaring death tolls in February” and that there will likely be little improvement until “well into March.”

“The next few weeks and months are going to be very tough, a very tough period for our nation — maybe the toughest during this entire pandemic,” Biden said. “I know it’s hard to hear, but it’s the truth.”

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said earlier in the day that the nation was suffering a surge of cases “that has just gotten out of control in many respects.” Fauci, appearing on CNN, lamented what he expects to be a post-holiday increase in cases and the strong possibility that January’s caseload will exceed even that of December.

“You just have to assume it’s going to get worse,” said Fauci, who has agreed to be Biden’s chief medical adviser.

Air travel hits pandemic record amid surging infections and hospitalizations

About 200,000 new coronavirus cases have been reported daily in recent weeks, with a record high of 252,431 on Dec. 17.

The nation’s overall caseload surpassed 19 million on Sunday, even as the holidays were expected to cause a lag in reporting. Hospitalizations have exceeded 100,000 since the start of December and hit a peak of 119,000 on Dec. 23. Deaths are averaging more than 2,000 a day, with the most reported to date — 3,406 — on Dec. 17.

Biden’s expectations of a mounting death toll repeated warnings he made before the election, when Republicans were mocking Democrats for exaggerating the reach of the pandemic. In September, when the nation mourned the loss of 200,000 people to the virus, Biden predicted that the death toll could hit 400,000 people by the time Trump left office.

“Critics said I was being too alarmist and negative. . . . And the reality is, it looks like we are going to hit that grim milestone,” Biden said, noting that the death count already has exceeded 330,000.

Given that actions taken now will have months-long implications, Biden urged Trump to “clearly and unambiguously promote mask-wearing” and “clearly and unambiguously urge all Americans to take the vaccine once it’s available.” He said the president should publicly receive the vaccine, as he and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris have done, to “instill the same degree of confidence” in the vaccine.

Harris received her vaccination earlier Tuesday at the United Medical Center in Washington, which serves the predominantly Black communities of the city’s Southeast quadrant and the southern part of Prince George’s County in Maryland. The event was broadcast live on television, and Harris said she hoped she could allay the mistrust that many Black Americans are expressing about the vaccine by getting hers in a hospital that serves Black neighborhoods.

Harris received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine from Patricia Cummings, the daughter of immigrants from Guyana who has been a nurse for a decade and a half. If Harris had any reaction to the shot, it was hidden by the two masks she was wearing, and she told Cummings afterward that “that was easy” and that she “barely felt anything.”

“I want to encourage everyone to get the vaccine. It is relatively painless, it happens really quickly, and it’s safe,” Harris told a dozen or so reporters who had gathered for the event.

“We have hospitals and medical centers and clinics like this all over the country that are staffed by people who understand the community, who often come from the community, and who administer all year round trusted health care,” she said. “I want to remind people that right in your community is where you will take the vaccine . . . by folks you may know who have been working in the same hospital where your children were born.”

Biden, who received his first shot of the coronavirus vaccine last week, said in his remarks that his administration will launch a “massive public education campaign to increase vaccine acceptance,” especially in Black, Latino and Native American communities where he said there’s some distrust of the government and hesitancy about the vaccine.

Both Biden and Harris have backed expanded stimulus checks to needy Americans but have signaled that they do not see the current payments of $600 as sufficient. Biden on Tuesday called the recent stimulus deal a “down payment” and said he will push for more coronavirus relief as soon as he takes office next month.

He also sought to apply pressure to Congress by asserting that the success of his administration in ending the pandemic would depend on the approval of billions in additional funding.

He said he wants to vaccinate 100 million Americans during his first 100 days in office — but can do so only “if Congress provides the funding.” He also backed reopening most public schools that serve children in kindergarten through eighth grade by the end of his first 100 days — but said that doing so will require Congress to provide “tens of billions of dollars” for more testing, more buses so students can socially distance, more cleaning services, more protective equipment and other necessities. Congress would also have to approve more funding for protective gear for front-line health-care workers and a host of other needs, he said.

“We are going to get through this. Brighter days are coming,” Biden said. “But it’s going to take all of the grit and determination we have as Americans to get it done.”

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John Wagner, Brittany Shammas and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.