WASHINGTON — When the Biden administration held its first coronavirus briefing Wednesday, there were no cameos from the president, no speakers behind the White House podium jousting with reporters, and no data coming from outside the federal agencies involved in the pandemic response.
And in a sign of the awareness of the risks of putting people in a room together, the briefing wasn't even held in person, which brought its own problem of technical glitches.
It was a much different scene from the coronavirus news briefings of the Trump administration, which often became freewheeling televised spectacles with the president jockeying with journalists. It's one of the clearest signs yet of how President Joe Biden is taking a vastly different approach when it comes to talking to the American people.
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From the start of the pandemic, public health officials have been making the case that combating the virus requires a communal effort.
Biden and his pandemic advisers argue that changing the way information gets to the public will be one of the primary ways to turn around the trajectory of the pandemic.
During Wednesday's briefing speakers painted a dire picture of the state of the pandemic — projecting as many as 514,000 people could die from the virus by Feb. 20 — while trying to reassure the public that the administration is working as fast as it can to speed vaccinations.
"I know this is not news we all want to hear, but this is something we must say so we are all aware," said CDC director Rochelle Walensky. "But if we are united in action, we can turn things around. Continuing to expand safe, effective vaccination is key to ending the Covid-19 pandemic and bringing our country back to health."
The briefing was held on Zoom with none of the speakers in the same room and 500 reporters logged on. That created a string of technical issues, like speakers' audio not working and an echo when some speakers were talking.
Along with the briefings, the Biden administration also plans a broader public communications strategy, including public service-style announcements on the vaccine, something the Trump administration was never able to get off the ground.
Biden's coronavirus advisers have attributed much of the public’s hesitancy to wearing masks and follow other basic public health guidelines to former President Donald Trump’s repeated downplaying of the pandemic’s severity and speculation about unproven treatments ranging from hydroxychloroquine to injecting disinfectant into the human body.
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“The first thing that has to be done is to have clear organization of who does what. The second is to communicate effectively,” said Thomas Frieden, a former director of the CDC. “To be very clear with everyone about what we know, when we know it, and how we are trying to find it out.”
But after a year of conflicting information from the White House along with misinformation spread on social media and amplified by Trump, changing the public’s perception about the pandemic won’t come easy. The number of people who trust the federal government to provide accurate information tumbled during the pandemic, though it has increased since Biden was elected, according to an Axios-Ipsos tracking poll.
The briefings, which will be held three times a week, are a start at trying to bolster public confidence. Unlike Trump, Biden isn’t expected to speak at the briefings and instead they will be led by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“These will be science-led briefings, featuring our public health officials and members of our Covid-19 response team,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who will also not participate in the coronavirus briefing. She said the briefings are “a reflection of our commitment to being transparent and honest with the public about the pandemic and the work our whole-of-government team is doing every day.”
While Trump said he intentionally sought to put a more positive spin on the pandemic — criticizing Biden during the campaign for warning Americans of a “dark winter” — Biden has said he will be more direct in how he communicates, even when that means delivering bad news.
“Vice President Harris and I, and our entire administration will always be honest and transparent with you about both the good news, the bad,” Biden said in his second day in office when outlining his Covid response plan. “We will level with you, when we make a mistake. We'll straight up say what happened.”
The new administration has also allowed its public health experts to do more television appearances.
Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that he was “blocked” by the Trump administration from going on her show “because they didn't like the way you handle things, and they didn't want me on."
There are signs the strategy is working already. The number of Americans who said they had a “great deal or fair amount of trust” in the federal government to provide accurate information about the pandemic has increased to 50 percent compared to 40 percent who said the same before the inauguration, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll released this week. Trust in Biden stands at 58 percent while trust in Trump has remained steady at 27 percent.
How to handle the coronavirus briefings was a source of great debate within the Trump White House with much of the focus on how Trump’s involvement could hurt him or help him politically, White House aides said at the time.
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Trump’s news conferences often spun off topic with Trump repeating misinformation about the state of the pandemic, attacking reporters and downplaying the severity of the illness. Trump also presented inaccurate data at the briefings that didn’t come from government scientists, said former coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx in an interview with CBS.
After Trump speculated that disinfectant could be injected into the human body during an April briefing, advisers urged Trump to stop attending the events. One adviser said at the time that keeping him out of the day-to-day public narrative could help depoliticize the pandemic. But after Trump stopped making regular appearances, his public approval numbers fell, causing political advisers to urge him to resume the briefings, which he did.
After the election, Trump made little mention of the pandemic as it surged across the country. His last public remarks on the coronavirus were Dec. 11 when he talked about the approval of the first vaccine.