Biden makes picks for key public health roles as pandemic rages

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden listens after announcing nominees and appointees to serve on his economic policy team at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.

President-elect Joe Biden has made his selections for two key public health positions, sources said on Sunday, as he prepares to take office next month as the coronavirus pandemic rages to new levels across the United States.

Biden plans to nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as secretary of health and human services, two sources said, placing the Latino former congressman in a critical role battling the pandemic.

The former vice president is also expected to nominate Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, to run the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person familiar with the decision said.

The choice of Becerra, 62, who also had been considered a candidate for U.S. attorney general, came as Biden faced more pressure to add diversity to his Cabinet appointments, including complaints from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the lack of Latinos.

Becerra will lead the health agency as it struggles to handle a resurgence of the coronavirus, including record infections and a daily death toll that has exceeded 2,000 in recent days, and prepares a mammoth effort to vaccinate Americans against the virus.

Neither Becerra nor Walensky could be reached for immediate comment. A spokesman for Biden’s transition declined to comment.

More than 281,000 Americans have died from the COVID-19 disease, according to a Reuters tally.

The announcement of the choice of Becerra could come as soon as Monday, said one of the sources familiar with the decision. Biden named some top members of his health team last week, and is expected to roll out the full team this week.

“Biden is living up to his commitment to make the Cabinet a reflection of diversity,” said Robert Garcia, mayor of Long Beach, California, and a longtime ally of Becerra and Biden.

Garcia said Becerra “has a strong record on healthcare but I think it goes beyond that. The president-elect selected someone with the highest levels of integrity and intellect.”

In Congress, Becerra played a key role in passing the Affordable Care Act – former President Barack Obama’s key domestic policy achievement. In his current role, Becerra leads the coalition of 20 states defending the program better known as Obamacare, including before the Supreme Court last month.

Biden has asked Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, to stay on as chief medical adviser.

The Democratic president-elect also has named Jeff Zients, an economic adviser touted for his managerial skills, as a coronavirus “czar” to oversee an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.

Biden picked Vivek Murthy, a physician and former surgeon general who has gained prominence in recent months as co-chairman of Biden’s advisory board dealing with the pandemic, to return for a second go-around as surgeon general.

Becerra served as a Democratic U.S. representative from 1993 to 2017 before moving back to his home state to become attorney general. In that post, he succeeded Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

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