Biden vows better handling of pandemic in meeting with frontline workers

President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, arrives to speak about economic recovery at The Queen theater, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(CN) — President-elect Joe Biden met with an assortment of frontline workers Wednesday in a virtual roundtable that allowed participants to voice concerns and apprise the incoming president of the challenges faced by nurses, firefighters, teachers and others as the pandemic continues to rage.

A firefighter talked about how his team needs to act quickly to rescue individuals trapped in an overturned car, while a nurse talked about how she has never been tested despite working on the front lines of the pandemic since February and a school teacher talked about the mental health deterioration of her students as Biden did more listening than speaking during the Wednesday event.

“This crisis has shown we literally could not survive without you all,” Biden said. “You’ve always been essential, even if most of America hasn’t learned that term until recently.”

The meeting comes as the coronavirus pandemic enters the worst phase so far in the United States. On Tuesday alone nearly 160,000 cases were reported, representing a staggering 79% increase over the two-week average. Deaths and hospitalizations are growing swiftly as well.

Tuesday saw 1,583 Covid-related deaths reported, a 38% increase over the two-week average. While the increase is not as sharp, deaths tend to lag new cases so the daily death total could spike in the coming days or weeks. On the other hand, new therapies and a better understanding of how to treat the disease could mean the death rate stays low relative to the infection rate.

Regardless, the hospitalization rate is on the rise, and whether or not the disease is killing people at the same rate as at the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of Americans are still falling sick enough to require hospitalization.

On Tuesday, counties and states reported an addition of approximately 76,800 hospitalizations, a 48% increase over the two-week average.

Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said her contingent of nurses continues to battle a shortage of protective equipment despite being almost nine months into the pandemic.

“I have not been tested once yet and I have been on the front lines since February,” Turner said.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Biden said.

Turner said working without being tested to know if you are infected and possibly carrying the disease home to the family is one of the toughest aspects of the job. She said there is little to no transparency in the state government and the hospital administration regarding the availability of protective equipment.

“There is something seriously wrong when nurses have to take to the streets to beg for protection in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

Biden pledged to do more.

“We shouldn’t just praise you, but also protect you and pay you,” he said.

Biden echoed his comments from yesterday, saying President Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the results of the presidential election are hampering his team’s ability to begin planning how to curtail the coronavirus spread and how to distribute vaccines when they become available.

“Unless the planning is made available soon, we are going to be behind,” Biden said.

Two drugmakers have announced vaccines that are 95% effective in recent days, giving hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight.

Anthony Murray, from the International Association of Firefighters, said firefighters often don’t have the option to practice physical distancing as they carry out their duties.

“If we are crawling inside a car that has flipped over on the highway to rescue a mother and a child, well, that is close contact,” Murray said.

He said the infection rate among firefighters he has worked with has continued to climb relative to the spike nationwide and his firefighters are feeling anxious about their exposure and the danger they pose to their families after the shift is over.

Patricia Forrai-Gunter, with the American Federation of Teachers, said her biggest worry right now is not so much the academic challenges imposed by distance learning but the social development of students.

“The one thing that concerns me when I talk to these children is their mental health condition,” Forrai-Gunter said. “I fear that when we go back, we won’t have enough boots on the ground to make a difference.”

Biden said he will use the full force of the federal government once he takes over in January, saying he will invoke the Defense Production Act while using other mechanisms.

Many of the participants praised Biden for taking the novel coronavirus seriously, contrasting his leadership style with that of Trump, who has downplayed the severity of the virus and flip-flopped on the importance of public health measures like wearing a mask.

Trump did not make a public appearance Wednesday, as he has kept his daily schedule fairly light in the wake of Election Day.