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A leaderless America slips deep into a grim pandemic winter Stephen Collinson Profile

 America is sliding into a winter limbo of alarming spikes in Covid-19 cases and deepening economic pain while an apathetic lame-duck White House and a deadlocked Congress provide no political leadership.

There is also a remarkable contrast between what is shaping up as the darkest holiday season in modern history and hope for the future. Hugely encouraging data on several vaccine candidates apparently near approval by government health regulators suggests normal life could begin to resume by the middle of next year. But President Donald Trump, who is sulking after his election defeat, is not emulating health experts and other world leaders by encouraging Americans to redouble preventative measures to save lives in the short term before vaccines become widely available.

Leadership is also missing in Congress. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and GOP-led Senate will return to Washington this week, but have shown no signs they can get together to ease the consequent economic pain of millions of unemployed Americans amid scenes of long Great Depression-style lines outside food banks.
    President-elect Joe Biden is moving quickly to put a diverse and experienced team around him -- he rolled out an all-female senior communications team Sunday, and he is expected to announce top economic officials this week.
    But even a President-elect who promises to replace Trump's neglect with a science-based approach to the pandemic can only do so much before he takes office on January 20, when the health crisis and economic toll are likely to be far worse.
    The current President spent Sunday firing off delusional new claims to bolster his fantasy that the election was stolen, which did nothing to advance his inept legal cases but further poisoned hopes of national unity when he's gone.
    By contrast, top government health experts blanketed Sunday talk shows, warning of an alarming post-Thanksgiving rise in Covid cases, overwhelmed hospitals and exhausted health workers and pleaded with a country beset by pandemic fatigue to mitigate the pain and death for a few more months.
    The US is now averaging 162,365 new coronavirus cases per day, a number that could be artificially low because data slowed over the Thanksgiving break. An average of 1,430 Americans are dying every day, according to Johns Hopkins University data. A record-setting 93,238 Covid-19 hospitalizations were reported on Sunday.
    "This is a really dangerous time," government testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

    Biden waits in the wings

    Developments over the Thanksgiving weekend reflected a juxtaposition between an incoming President who is gearing up to tackle a staggering national crisis and a sitting commander-in-chief who retains his authority but is pursuing baseless claims over election fraud that will complicate the task of his successor.
    It was left to the heads of government health agencies, some of whom were effectively muzzled by the President ahead of the election, to muster national resolve.
    Since Biden has little capacity to limit the explosion in Covid-19 cases, his most critical initial task will be to preside over the distribution of a vaccine developed by private companies in coordination with the current White House.
    Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, said on "State of the Union" that he was "really" confident in the plan to distribute the vaccine, ahead of Food and Drug Administration meetings in the coming weeks to consider an emergency use authorization. The highest risk groups, including health workers and elderly people living in assisted living facilities, could start getting injections before the end of the year. A decision is expected after a December 10 meeting of an FDA committee but it could be late spring before most Americans see a vaccine -- or the double shots that some require.
    A second company, Moderna, said Monday it will ask the FDA to review an expanded set of truly striking data showing that the vaccine is 94.1% effective at preventing Covid-19 and 100% effective at preventing severe cases of the disease. Pfizer also applied for FDA certification for its vaccine candidate earlier this month.
    Giroir's confidence on distributing the vaccine is encouraging. But it must be seen as another upbeat assessment from an administration that has made repeated optimistic assessments on the provision of protective equipment for front-line workers, falling death rates, expanding testing and forecasts about hospital occupancy that have all proven to be empty.
    Dr. Megan Ranney, a Brown University emergency physician who has been treating Covid patients, said Sunday that political failures had brewed a disaster in the nation's hospitals.
    "We have been talking for months about the need for increased supplies of personal protective equipment, about the need for increased testing supplies, we still desperately need those," Ranney said on CNN "Newsroom."
    "But even if those were all available, the trouble is that the surge in Covid-19 patients right now is so great, it is overwhelming hospitals, it is overwhelming available beds and worst of all, it is overwhelming the number of available staff."

    Grim warnings from top health officials

    The unity of messaging from government health experts over the weekend was remarkable and ominous — and only emphasized the silence of Trump, who has repeatedly lied about the US "rounding the corner" on the crisis, or Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force.
    Giroir told CNN's Dana Bash that he was "very concerned" about high levels of Thanksgiving travel and asked Americans to avoid high risk areas like bars and other indoors spaces.
    America's top infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned of a potential "surge superimposed upon that surge that we're already in" heading into December.
    "We're entering into what really is a precarious situation because we're in the middle of a steep slope," Fauci said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
    US Surgeon General Jerome Adams pleaded with Americans to stick to mask wearing and social distancing.
    "I want to be straight with the American people, it's going to get worse over the next several weeks," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "The actions that we take in the next several days will determine how bad it is or whether or not we continue to flatten our curve."
    And another senior member of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, who said she hopes to begin briefing Biden's team this week after a transition delayed by the President, said people who traveled for the holiday should get tested and avoid vulnerable relatives.
    "To every American, this is the moment to protect yourself and your family," Birx said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
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