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Biden Picks Longtime Obamacare Supporter to Head HHS, Pandemic Response

By Ernie Mundell and Robin Foster HealthDay Reporters

MONDAY, Dec. 7, 2020 (HealthDay News) – President-elect Joe Biden has chosen California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Harvard infectious diseases expert Dr. Rochelle Walensky to run the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Becerra, Biden puts a staunch defender of the Affordable Care Act in charge of carrying out the administration's coronavirus response, the Associated Press reported.

If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra will be the first Hispanic to head the HHS, a $1-trillion agency with 80,000 employees that oversees drugs and vaccines, cutting-edge medical research and health insurance programs covering more than 130 million Americans, the AP said.

Biden's selection of Becerra was confirmed by two people familiar with the decision, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement that is expected on Tuesday, the AP reported. Two people also anonymously confirmed the choice of Walensky; the post of CDC director does not require Senate confirmation, the AP said.

Becerra has led a coalition of Democratic states defending "Obamacare" from the Trump administration's latest effort to overturn it, a legal case the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on next year, the AP said.

Becerra served for more than a decade in Congress, representing parts of Los Angeles County. As a senior House Democrat, Becerra was deeply involved in steering the Obama-era health law through Congress in 2009 and 2010, the AP said.

But overseeing the coronavirus response will be the most complicated task he has tackled: The United States will be in the middle of a mass vaccination campaign next year. So far, the vaccines have shown surprisingly strong effectiveness, but it is impossible to tell how smoothly a national rollout of the vaccines will go.

Early in California's coronavirus response, Becerra defended broad shutdowns Gov. Gavin Newsom had put in place to curtail the pandemic, including limits on religious gatherings. Three churches in Southern California had sued Newsom, Becerra and other state officials because in-person church services had been halted.

As CDC director, Walensky would replace Dr. Robert Redfield. Walensky, who practices at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has spent most of her career combatting HIV/AIDS.

Biden will ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days

President-elect Joseph Biden said last week that on his first day in office he would ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days, and that Dr. Anthony Fauci will play a pivotal role in his administration's fight to curb the spread of coronavirus.

"On the first day I'm inaugurated, I'm going to ask the public for 100 days to mask. Just 100 days to mask — not forever, just 100 days. And I think we'll see a significant reduction" in the virus, Biden told CNN.

As for Fauci, Biden made it clear that the nation's top infectious diseases expert would be a central player in the U.S. coronavirus response, The New York Times reported.

"I asked him to stay on in the exact same role he's had for the past several presidents, and I asked him to be a chief medical adviser for me as well, and be part of the COVID team," Biden said.

That response is facing its toughest challenge so far, as daily case counts, hospitalizations and deaths continue to set records on a daily basis.

California, the first state to impose far-reaching lockdowns after the pandemic struck, announced strict new measures on Thursday, to try to keep a surge in cases from overwhelming hospitals, the Times reported.

The new restrictions will last for at least three weeks, strictly limit store capacity and allow restaurants to serve only takeout or delivery.

"If we don't act now our hospital system will be overwhelmed," Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week. "If we don't act now, we'll continue to see our death rate climb."

Other states have also taken stronger actions to slow the spread of coronavirus.

In anticipation of a deadly holiday season, Gov. John Carney of Delaware on Thursday issued a stay-at-home advisory asking people not to gather indoors with anyone outside their household, the Times reported. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently ordered a three-week shutdown that closed casinos and movie theaters and suspended in-person high school and college classes. Oregon, Washington State, Minnesota and cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have also re-imposed restrictions.

A global scourge

By Monday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 14.8 million while the death toll passed 282,000, according to a Times tally. According to the same tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Monday were: Texas and California with roughly 1.3 million cases each; Florida with just over 1 million cases; Illinois with nearly 789,000; and New York with over 710,600.

Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.

Many European countries are tightening restrictions, the Associated Press reported. France has entered a nationwide lockdown, and Germany and Austria have started partial lockdowns as government officials across the continent scramble to slow a sharp rise in infections that threatens to overwhelm their health care systems.

England has followed suit, while Italy, Greece and Kosovo also announced new measures, the AP reported.

Things are no better in India, where the coronavirus case count passed 9.6 million on Monday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. More than 140,500 coronavirus patients have died in India, according to the Hopkins tally, but when measured as a proportion of the population, the country has had far fewer deaths than many others. Doctors say this reflects India's younger and leaner population. Still, the country's public health system is severely strained, and some sick patients cannot find hospital beds, the Times said. Only the United States has more coronavirus cases.

Meanwhile, Brazil had over 6.6 million cases and nearly 177,000 deaths as of Monday, the Hopkins tally showed.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 67.1 million on Monday, over 1.5 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.

SOURCES: The New York Times; Associated Press

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