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President-elect Joe Biden’s Plan to Combat COVID-19 and Prepare for Future Global Threats lays out robust and actionable steps that will help the United States end the pandemic, according to Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health.

The plan recognizes the importance of behavioral management such as consistent mask wearing and physical distancing. It prioritizes science and public health through a task force of qualified experts experienced in working with diverse communities, many of which have been disproportionality impacted by the pandemic. It also addresses the pandemic’s economic impact on workers, families and small businesses.

Why is it important that Biden’s task force focuses on diverse communities?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated health disparities in vulnerable populations that are confronted with social and structural barriers that undermine health. People of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, those with disabilities and other marginalized groups experience these disparities at higher rates than the general population. COVID-19 is no exception.

Many essential workers, including grocery store employees, mail carriers, health care and public health professionals, are also members of racial and ethnic minority groups, which experience higher rates of COVID-19 infection because of their heightened likelihood of exposure due to work. Highlighting these disparities, recent Rutgers research also shows that Black and Latinx hospital workers are twice as likely to become infected with COVID-19 as their counterparts.

COVID-19, like HIV, TB and other infectious diseases, is more than a biomedical phenomenon. COVID-19 is rooted in social injustice and health inequity. I am confident that Biden’s task force will address how social conditions perpetuate infections in our country.  

What is behavioral health management, and why is it essential to a public health plan?
Many medical interventions require individuals to maintain consistent behaviors. To fight infection, people must take their antibiotics for the prescribed amount of days even if they are feeling better; to combat obesity, individuals must consistently engage in exercise and good eating habits; and to suppress viral infection, people living with HIV must take their medications daily.

Similarly, the management and prevention of COVID-19 will require health-protective behaviors. Right now, these behaviors include wearing masks, physically distancing, washing hands, getting the flu shot, responding to contact tracers and avoiding large groups.

As we prepare for the release of a COVID-19 vaccine, it is more important than ever that we develop messaging — guided by public health psychology — to encourage behaviors that include taking the vaccine and in the case of Pfizer’s formulation, two doses over a three-week interval. While making the vaccine easily accessible and free in communities, we must take action to ensure full vaccine compliance, which includes making the vaccine easy to get. 

Our behavioral messaging should also focus on altruism, our ability as humans to do good for our loved ones and communities through behaviors that promote and protect health.

Why is it important that Biden’s task force includes a varied group of scientific experts?
Biden’s task force includes former government health officials, scientists, academics and public health professionals who will certainly be beneficial in shaping COVID-19 policy. 

Rutgers School of Public Health’s Urban Public Health Paradigm calls for integrated and reciprocal relationships between government, academia, industry and the community to achieve optimal health through the different perspectives and resources that each group offers. I see that synergy of experience in Biden’s task force, which through its growing list of members will collectively address the COVID-19 pandemic using multiple lenses and perspectives.

Why is it important that the task force work with local public health officials on a community-specific level?
A single intervention will not work for all communities. Community building is key in enacting behavioral change and improving the health of people and populations. We have seen this with other pandemics like the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Local public health officials and departments, which are rooted in and often made up of the very people they serve, understand their communities and are able to tailor their approaches to the needs of the people they serve. In order to overcome vaccine hesitancy and political turmoil surrounding COVID-19, we need to listen to what people are telling us about their health, and respect their attitudes and beliefs.

In what ways does Biden's plan echo similar initiatives in other countries?
Countries that have successfully managed COVID-19 have had a unified approach to combating the pandemic. Greece is an example of a nation that had an approach rooted in trusting experts, speed and efficiency, transparency and clear communication, bolstering public health infrastructure and defying deeply embedded cultural norms. In the case of Greece, this included taking on the powerful Orthodox Church during the height of the initial wave, which was also during Easter.

Are there other federal approaches that parallel Biden’s plan?
A parallel to Biden’s plan is the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States, developed and deployed by the Obama-Biden administration as the first national approach to the disease since the disease emerged in 1981.

The HIV/AIDS strategy similarly lays out concrete steps for combating a pandemic that disproportionately impacts certain people and populations, providing tailorable approaches to meet specific community needs.

What major obstacles and priorities will Biden’s task force face?
One of the greatest obstacles is the lack of trust in science, which will have to be repaired by once again normalizing science in our society. In the last year, scientists have been undermined, questioned and ridiculed, creating doubts about science in our society.

Another priority will be developing a plan to efficiently and effectively deploy the vaccine. Each day that the presidential transition is stalled means another day in which a plan has not been enacted, leading to more loss of American lives.

What is the greatest key to ending the pandemic?
Attacking the virus on multiple fronts is key to ending the pandemic. A successful approach will require a holistic biopsychosocial approach that addresses the pandemic’s biomedical, behavioral, economic, social and psychological aspects.