When the long history of the COVID-19 pandemic is finally written, Dr. Leana Wen will be remembered as one of the most reassuring faces and reliable voices in this period of hardship. A former health commissioner of Baltimore and current visiting professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, Wen has provided both encouragement and tough-love truths for a public hungry for information and counsel. In a Nov. 19 conversation with TIME’s Alice Park, she offered her candid thoughts about what is very much an inflection point in the pandemic—with two new vaccines (one from Moderna and one from Pfizer) having proven effective and a changeover of presidential administrations coming in January.
“President Trump has essentially surrendered this response,” she said. “There are so many steps that could have been taken that were not. President-elect Biden has already laid out a very good plan that’s based on evidence. He has enlisted top public health experts and has made it clear he is going to be listening to them and that public health is finally going to be driving this public health crisis.”
The problem, she said, is that even the best public health policy goes nowhere if people don’t follow it. With a country both exhausted by the seemingly never-ending pandemic and riven by politicization of issues like mask-wearing and lockdowns, it’s possible Biden will have what she calls “a Herculean task” getting buy-in from the public. “The problem is that of trust,” Wen says.
To get Americans on board, Wen recommends that the incoming president reach out to three groups: economists, in order to convey to them that long-term economic health depends on everyone bearing some short-term financial pain; prominent Republicans, who can reach back across the aisle and help depoliticize the pandemic; and religious leaders, whom Wen argues are trusted by some factions of the public more than politicians or doctors.
The vaccines present challenges of their own—and again trust is a problem, especially among those who worry that development and testing were rushed for political reasons. Distribution is an issue too. Are cities and states up to the task of storing the vaccine vials at the super-cold temperature that one of the shots—the Pfizer vaccine—requires? Can the vaccines be rolled out quickly and equitably so that communities of color, often medically disenfranchised, are fairly covered? Can the medical community keep up with other routine vaccinations like the measles-mumps-rubella shot while the COVID vaccines take precedence? Wen admits she is “not at all comfortable” that all of these issues can be fully resolved.
What she is much more comfortable with is stating, unequivocally, that we can ease the tough months ahead if we all adopt the simple precautions—masking, social distancing, hand-washing—that experts have advocated for again and again over the past year. We also must be willing to write off this holiday season—limiting Thanksgiving gatherings to just the people in our own households and similarly scaling back Christmas, in one final push to get the pandemic behind us.
“A vaccine is on its way,” Wen says. “We can see our loved ones next winter, but not if we don’t survive this winter.”
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