President-elect Joe Biden has named two Philadelphia-area physicians to a task force aimed at tackling the coronavirus during the presidential transition period.
Ezekiel Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania oncologist and medical ethics expert, and Julie Morita, the executive vice president of the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, were both appointed in a press release from the Biden transition team Monday morning.
Morita worked in public health in Chicago for almost 20 years and was appointed the city’s health commissioner in 2015, before moving to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the country’s largest health philanthropy, which, in recent years has championed efforts to reduce health inequities. A graduate of the University of Illinois, she was born and raised in Chicago. Her family is originally from Washington state and Oregon; as children, her parents were imprisoned in Japanese internment camps during World War II.
“Having grown up hearing stories about the harsh and unjust treatment her grandparents, parents, and thousands of others endured, Morita has used that knowledge to pursue health equity in every aspect of her work,” her biography on the foundation’s website reads.
In a study on the impact of the coronavirus released earlier this year, the foundation noted that half of the households in the four largest cities in the country — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston — had experienced “serious financial problems” because of the pandemic, and noted that many of those problems were concentrated in Black and Latino families, families with incomes below $100,000, and families who had lost jobs and wages during the pandemic.
In an October interview on the study with the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit newsroom covering education, Morita said that those surveys had been conducted earlier in the year, when Americans could still expect extra unemployment benefits from the federal government that long since dried up.
“It’s a tragedy,” she said in October.
Emanuel chairs the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Penn, and advised the White House Office of Management and Budget on health policy during the Obama administration. Also a Chicago native, he earned his medical degree and a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Harvard University.
His younger brother Rahm was former President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff — and later the mayor of Chicago. Rahm Emanuel appointed Morita to serve as the city’s health commissioner in 2015.
Ezekiel Emanuel is the author of a controversial 2014 Atlantic article in which he said that, past age 75, he would not take drastic measures to prolong his own life. “I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75.”
More recently, Emanuel has been vocal about the failures of President Donald Trump’s approach to COVID-19, criticizing the lack of a cohesive national coronavirus plan and the administration’s decision to leave it up to states to direct their own responses.
In a live interview with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin in October, he said that if Biden won the election, he would face the challenge of restoring trust in proven public health measures that for too many people devolved into campaign rhetoric and fodder for culture wars.
“Joe Biden already does it — wearing the mask, waving the mask, saying we need people to wear it,” Emanuel said. He said Biden would need to use “trusted public health officials” to help “depoliticize communication" from the administration.
In remarks on Monday, Biden said that depoliticizing public health measures will be a priority as his administration tackles COVID-19.
"It’s time to end the politicization of basic responsible public health steps like mask wearing and social distancing. We have to come together to heal the soul of this country so that we can effectively address this crisis as one country,” Biden said. “We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Not Democrat or Republican lives, American lives.”
Emanuel said Biden should appoint task forces to deal with major COVID-19 response issues — from development and distribution of vaccinations to PPE distribution to contact tracing — and help coordinate with states.
“The locus of control has to be in the White House, with the main person or task force, and the subsidiary task forces,” he said.
He said it would also be important for a Biden administration to work with Congress to fund the coronavirus response — not just around vaccines and treatments, but also helping families that can’t make ends meet.
“We have to support the American public as it goes through this bad moment so they’re not tempted to break public health measures" — for example, going back to work at high-risk jobs because they simply can’t afford not to, he said.
Neither Morita nor Emanuel were immediately available for comment Monday.
The other members of the task force are: