US President-elect Joe Biden has picked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be his health secretary, putting him in a leading role to oversee his administration’s coronavirus response.
If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra, 62, will be the first Latino to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a $1-trillion-plus agency with 80,000 employees and a portfolio that includes drugs and vaccines, leading-edge medical research and health insurance programs covering more than 130 million Americans.
Separately, Biden picked a Harvard infectious disease expert, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This team of world-class medical experts and public servants will be ready on day one to mobilize every resource of the federal government to expand testing and masking,” Biden said in a statement, adding that they would “oversee the safe, equitable, and free distribution of treatments and vaccines.”
Becerra, as the state of California’s top lawyer, has led the coalition of Democratic states defending “Obamacare” from the Trump administration’s latest effort to overturn it, a legal case awaiting a Supreme Court decision next year.
A former senior House Democrat, Becerra was involved in steering the Obama health law through Congress in 2009 and 2010. At the time he would tell reporters that one of his primary motivations was having tens of thousands of uninsured people in his Southern California district.
But overseeing the coronavirus response will be the most complicated task he has ever contemplated. By next year, the U.S. will be engaged in a mass vaccination campaign, the groundwork for which has been laid under the Trump administration. Although the vaccines appear very promising, and no effort has been spared to plan for their distribution, it’s impossible to tell yet how well things will go when it’s time to get shots in the arms of millions of Americans.
Becerra won’t be going it alone. Biden has also named Jeff Zients, an economic adviser touted for his managerial skills, as a coronavirus “czar” to oversee a COVID-19 response that will soon include an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.
The president-elect 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 term as surgeon general. He also chose Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, to lead a group to deal with addressing disproportionate illness from COVID-19 among Black and Latino Americans.