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Coronavirus Update: Government Reaction To Latest Surges Across The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today began with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging Americans not to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday next week. And the man who will have to lead the nation's response to the disease starting at noon on January 20, President-elect Joe Biden - he expressed concern to a bipartisan group of governors, saying his transition team isn't getting the information it needs to plan for a smooth response when he takes office. Now, as the day comes to a close, members of the White House coronavirus task force briefed reporters for the first time in months. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez have been following that briefing and other developments, and they're both with us.

Hi there.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Franco...

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: What did this task force say today?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the task force has been meeting, you know, all these weeks as cases have increased, but it hasn't been talking to reporters. There was an event in September and a few press briefings over the summer. Today, though, Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that cases are rising. But still, he said he is confident in the administration's ability to manage the continued crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: America has never been more prepared to combat this virus than we are today. And our pledge to each and every American looking on today is we're going to work around the clock to keep it that way.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, but he also said he wanted to make it clear that the task force does not support lockdowns or school closures. And like the CDC, another member of the task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, suggested limiting interactions over the holidays.

SHAPIRO: So, Joe, this was the first public appearance by Dr. Deborah Birx in a while. And she laid out a pretty stark picture of the cases right now. What did she have to say?

PALCA: Yeah, she showed some slides that showed a pretty dramatic increase in various parts of the country. It's kind of breathtaking to see how fast cases are rising. And she hammered home the point that asymptomatic people are spreading the virus. These are people who don't appear sick. They look perfectly healthy, but they are infected, and they can infect others. And as the cold weather hits and people go indoors, this kind of spread is becoming even more important in how the virus is getting around. And here's what she said people need to do, especially with the holidays coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEBORAH BIRX: To wear a mask, to physically distance, to continue your hand hygiene but, really, in this moment of bringing people together, to really limit interactions indoors to immediate households when we see this level of community spread.

PALCA: And by immediate household, she means people you've been living with for at least two weeks. So it's not - you know, it's not just strangers. It's people you've really been around.

SHAPIRO: Now, Franco, during the campaign, President Trump often said the country was turning the corner even as numbers were climbing, and he complained about the continued focus on the disease. Now that he is a lame-duck president, even if he doesn't acknowledge it, is the White House changing their messaging?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, even as hotspots were springing up around the country, Trump was holding these large campaign rallies. And his message, you know, continued to be that the country has to stay open. He would criticize governors who kept restrictions in place. You know, Trump has instead been focusing on the good news about future vaccines, but it was significant that Pence and the task force acknowledged the current surge. You know, Pence had his mask in hand, and he continued to emphasize that vaccines are on the way and that officials are more experienced now than they were, for example, in the spring. But, again, you know, very broadly, he maintained the administration's message that the economy, the schools - they need to stay open. He said that over and over.

SHAPIRO: Joe, tell us about the timeline on vaccines because there's been good news this week from Pfizer and Moderna. What are the next steps? And when is it likely that people will be able to get immunized?

PALCA: Well, that's still not 100% clear. The companies have to file with the Food and Drug Administration to get permission to use these vaccines. They won't get a full license, but they'll get something called an emergency use authorization, or at least that would be the first thing they could try. And, you know, Dr. Fauci - Tony Fauci was at today's event, and he also hasn't been seen for a while down at the White House. But he was saying - he took a great deal of pain to say, yes, things are moving quickly, but the government is being very careful about making sure that the vaccine is safe and effective and won't cause any problems. And he wanted to assure people that there won't be any shortcuts or, you know, cutting corners to bring something to the market quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: If you look at highly efficacious and effective vaccines through the years, they've crushed formidable outbreaks like smallpox, like polio, like measles.

PALCA: So they're very effective, but, you know, the government is aware that people have been concerned about whether or not there's going to be enough testing to make sure these are safe and are usable. But if the approval process goes as most people expect it will, there could be vaccines out on the market by the end of December.

SHAPIRO: Now, Franco, President-elect Joe Biden held a virtual meeting today with a group of Democratic and Republican governors about the surge in cases. What did Biden say after that meeting?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he said his advisers have been hampered by the fact that the Trump administration has essentially stalled the transition process. You know, that's happening because President Trump is challenging the outcome of the election. So the Biden team, frankly, can't talk directly to federal scientists, you know, who are working on the response or access their data. Here's how he explained the challenge.

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JOE BIDEN: It's going to take time. It's going to take coordination. It's going to take the federal government and state governments working hand in glove, working together.

ORDOÑEZ: But, you know, the advisers can talk to governors, and the Biden team can talk to governors. And they have been very critical in leading response in their states. And Biden said today that it will be crucial for those governors and his administration to be on the same page to successfully manage the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: But, Franco, talk about the political challenge of doing that when some of the things that will protect people from the disease - like shutdowns, like mask-wearing - have become political points of disagreement that people define themselves as to whether they are on one side or the other of the issue.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's very - it's a real issue. I mean, the fact that masks, for example, have become a political issue is a very dramatic thing that the administration, that the Biden team - they're all trying to get past. And you could see that today in all the people, one after the other, coming up and talking about - Birx talking about vigilance, Fauci talking about double down, Pence wearing a mask. They are trying to get through that, so is Biden. But it has been very difficult, and we shall see if that could work. But it is another example of how crucial the transition is and for the two sides to be talking so that this issue can be addressed and we can have a smoother thing until a vaccine is actually ready and available for the majority of Americans.

SHAPIRO: That's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and science correspondent Joe Palca.

Thank you both.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX SONG, "NORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.