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President-elect Joe Biden formally introduced the public health team that will help him navigate the coronavirus pandemic and announced goals to curtail the virus during his first 100 days, as lawmakers raised questions about some of his intended nominees.

Mr. Biden said during televised remarks Tuesday that he will nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services, highlighting his defense of the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Biden also rolled out a Covid-19 task force led by transition co-chairman Jeffrey Zients, a veteran of the Obama administration, and said Dr. Vivek Murthy will reprise his Obama-era role as U.S. surgeon general and become the public face of the virus response.

“Covid-19 is a mass casualty," Mr. Biden said in Wilmington, Del., where he was flanked by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and some of his top advisers. “As a country, we’ve been living with this pandemic for so long we’re at risk at becoming numb to its toll on all of us."

But, he said, “out of our collective pain, we’re going to find collective purpose to control the pandemic, to save lives and to heal as a nation."

Mr. Biden outlined a three-step plan for the first 100 days of his administration: urging everyone to wear masks in public and requiring them on federal property and interstate transportation; delivering 100 million vaccine shots; and getting children back in school.

“We’ll still have much to do in the year ahead," Mr. Biden said. “And sadly, much difficulty as well. We’ll be far, far from done." But he said he was “absolutely convinced" that his incoming administration could change the course of the disease during the first 100 days of his tenure.

The number of people hospitalized in the U.S. has hit another high, and newly reported coronavirus infections surpassed a seven-day moving average of more than 200,000 for the first time. Nearly 284,000 people have died.

A bipartisan group of Senate and House lawmakers has been working to hammer out details of a roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief package. Two contentious portions have held up a deal: liability protections for businesses and other entities operating during the pandemic, a GOP priority; and funding for state and local governments, sought by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed Tuesday that they set aside both issues temporarily.

The Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday the first Covid-19 vaccine being considered for U.S. distribution met the prescribed success criteria in a clinical study. The Trump administration is aiming to have enough coronavirus vaccine for everyone in the U.S. who wants to take it by the second quarter of 2021.

Mr. Biden’s choices for senior health policy positions included people with connections to the Obama administration who he has said will focus on both confronting the pandemic and driving regulatory changes aimed at expanding health coverage.

The new team is expected to work closely with Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is on the current White House task force but has had an uneven relationship with President Trump. Mr. Biden said Dr. Fauci would remain in his role, calling him a “truth-teller" who would tell him “what I need to know."

Biden's picks
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Biden's picks

Some Republican lawmakers have questioned Mr. Biden’s choice of Mr. Becerra, who is not a public health official, to lead the Health and Human Services Department. “When you have that kind of knowledge from both training and experience, then you’re able to more clearly prioritize that which is related most essentially to advancing public health," said GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy, a physician from Louisiana. Mr. Cassidy has declined to say how he will vote on Mr. Becerra’s nomination.

Mr. Becerra, appearing at Mr. Biden’s event Tuesday by video, called the position a “breathtaking opportunity" and said he would work with the president-elect to build national unity amid the challenge. “We know it will be key to building critical momentum and support for the prevention and treatment of the coronavirus."

Later Tuesday, Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris met with civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, which have urged him to create a diverse cabinet. Congressional Latinos have also pressed for diversity.

Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the Urban League, said after the meeting that Mr. Biden “reaffirmed that he intends to make history when it comes to the appointments of African-Americans and Hispanics to his cabinet, his sub-cabinet and the White House."

The NAACP said it suggested to Mr. Biden that he create a position for a national adviser on racial justice, equity and advancement.

Mr. Biden’s transition team said in a statement after the meeting that they “discussed their joint priorities including advancing racial equity across the board, enforcing civil rights, and assembling a diverse White House and Cabinet that represents America."

His transition team has promised a busy period before the Christmas holidays, with formal announcements expected on his defense secretary, attorney general and picks for several domestic policy agencies.

Mr. Biden has chosen retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as defense secretary, the transition team said Tuesday. He would be the first Black secretary to lead the Pentagon if he wins confirmation.

Gen. Austin has “demonstrated exemplary leadership, character and command" and is “uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment," Mr. Biden said in a statement.

Gen. Austin would need to receive a waiver from Congress to be confirmed, because he hasn’t been retired from the military for the required seven years. Lawmakers granted a waiver to retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis at the start of the Trump administration so he could serve as defense secretary, but Democrats raised concerns about the need for civilian leadership in the military.

Mr. Biden wrote in The Atlantic on Tuesday that Gen. Austin retired from the military more than four years ago. “Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly," the president-elect said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said Tuesday that he wouldn’t support a waiver for Gen. Austin, saying it would “contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control" over the U.S. military.

Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in 2017 he wouldn’t support future waivers, but reserved judgment on Gen. Austin, saying, “In all fairness, you have to give the opportunity to the nominee to explain himself or herself." He called the retired general “a very qualified general officer."

Mr. Biden is expected to nominate Rep. Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio) to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to people familiar with the plans. Ms. Fudge, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was supported by Black lawmakers in Congress.

Mr. Biden is also expected to nominate former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to return to his role leading the federal agency, according to people familiar with the plans.

Mr. Biden was also deciding who would lead the Justice Department. The former vice president is considering several contenders, including outgoing Sen. Doug Jones (D., Ala.), a former U.S. attorney whose friendship with Mr. Biden dates back to the 1970s; former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Clinton administration; and Sally Yates, a former deputy attorney general.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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