Washington CNN  — 

President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday will introduce the scientists and doctors he says will finally defeat the pandemic – but for now, his team can only watch as a wave of infection and death deepens the crisis he will face after January 20.

As Biden will give his most significant preview yet of his plan to tackle the worst health challenge in 100 years, President Donald Trump – whose dereliction of duty has contributed to the alarming winter surge – will hold his own pandemic event. He will pitch for credit for the swift development of Covid-19 vaccines and sign an executive order prioritizing their supply for Americans.

The dueling events – one in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, and other at the White House – will showcase the vastly different approaches to the pandemic between Trump and Biden. The President has repeatedly downplayed the disaster as he concentrates instead on false claims that last month’s election was stolen from him. Biden, whose own campaign was an exercise in demonstrating social distancing and masking, is pledging to put science back at the center of the fight against the virus.

In the meantime, the tragedy of the pandemic is being exacerbated by the political vacuum in Washington. Trump, in his last weeks in office, has the power and presidential megaphone that could go a long way toward convincing Americans to take precautions, but has no inclination to do so. Biden has the plans and a fresh team of experts who could make a difference, but he has no real power to shift American behavior and policies until he is inaugurated next month.

The President plans to use a vaccine summit to sign an executive order at the White House aimed at prioritizing the shipment of the coronavirus vaccine to Americans over other nations. The administration’s Operation Warp Speed deserves some of the credit in the swift development of vaccines. But Tuesday’s event also seems to reflect the President’s relentless focus on using the crisis to advance his own political priorities since senior administration officials boasted that Trump saw the effort as a way of boosting his “America first” foreign policy principle. The impression that the move is more political than strategic was underscored when the head of the government’s vaccine effort, Moncef Slaoui, said on Tuesday he had no idea what the President was planning to do.

“Frankly, I don’t know – and frankly, I’m staying out of this, so I can’t comment,” Slaoui said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Slaoui also defended the government following a New York Times story that revealed that officials turned down an offer by Pfizer last summer to sell the US more supplies of its vaccine. Slaoui said that buying more doses at a time when it was unclear whether the Pfizer prototype would work would have been the wrong thing to do and stressed that the strategy was to diversify government bets through a series of potential vaccines.

“We selected six different vaccines to build the portfolio, to manage the risk that some may work and some may not work, but also to ensure that as more than one would work that we would accumulate vaccine doses from this portfolio of vaccines,” Slaoui said.

Still, it has emerged in the last few days that previous predictions by administration officials of several hundred million vaccine doses being available by the end of the year will fall well short, leaving states without sufficient inoculations to protect front-line health care workers when they get their first deliveries.

Ahead of Trump’s event, Tuesday’s headline are being dominated by coverage of the UK becoming the first country to administer the first vaccines after a rigorous process of clinical trials.

Trump had hoped to stage an “America first” victory lap of his own and CNN reported last week he was furious that Food and Drug Administration officials – who are expected to grant emergency authorization to the Pfizer vaccine this week – had not beaten the British to the punch. He took this attitude even though the FDA process is considered the global gold standard and officials already face a tough task in convincing many skeptical Americans to take the jab.

Biden tasks health team with ending the pandemic

The coming vaccines from a handful of pharmaceutical giants offer hope that normal life can be restored next year – though getting them in the arms of tens of millions of Americans will be a huge logistical challenge. There is no doubting, however, that the crisis is quickly getting worse.

One expert, Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine, warned Monday on CNN that the US, which is closing in on 15 million Covid-19 infections and a total death toll of 300,000, could soon regularly see 3,000 Covid-19 deaths every day.

And America’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Monday that after the projected post-Thanksgiving and Christmas surges kick in, the “middle of January could be a really dark time for us.”

That means the Biden administration will take office at the most extreme moment of the crisis and will face the task of getting up to speed and managing the hugely complicated operation to roll out tens of millions of vaccine doses. Biden’s appeal to all Americans in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper to wear masks for the first 100 days of his presidency will likely be even more appropriate given that the current infection levels will likely be dwarfed by the time he reaches the Oval Office.

There is also the question of whether millions of Americans who buy Trump’s false claims of a rigged election will be willing to take advice from a President who his mask-disdaining predecessor spent weeks baselessly branding as illegitimate.

Biden tasks health team with ending the pandemic

In Wilmington on Tuesday, the President-elect will unveil a new health team characterized by the kind of scientific rigor that Trump has often disdained during the pandemic. The lineup includes former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, whom Biden plans to nominate for a second spell in the same job, and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, whom the President-elect has picked to head the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fauci has accepted an invitation from Biden to stay on as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – a post he has held since 1984. The globally respected expert will also serve as the Biden administration’s chief medical officer.

But some Republicans are already raising flags at the selection of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Health and Human Services secretary.

“I think he will be controversial,” said GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, citing the nominee’s positions on single-payer health care and abortion. “Some of these folks are pretty radical.”

The comment raised the possibility that Biden faces a protracted confirmation showdown over his HHS secretary at the darkest moment of the worst public health crisis in 100 years.

The profound concern among health experts is all the more acute because there is such good news as more of the potential vaccine candidates that have shown high efficiency come on line.

But fatigue over social distancing, the temptation for people to gather during the holiday period and efforts by the President to minimize the seriousness of the threat could cause hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

“I just can’t help but think, as Americans lose their lives in the coming weeks, none of those people have to lose their lives,” Hotez of Baylor College told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the “Situation Room.”

“If we could just get them to the other side to get them vaccinated, they could live a long and normal life, and that’s where my priority is right now, especially in the middle part of the country, where people are still defiant of messages … where many still think Covid is a hoax or deaths are due to other causes.”

Virus’ winter assault

With leadership missing from the President, the burden of stemming the winter assault from the virus has fallen again to local and state leaders. Many are reintroducing restrictions on indoor dining, on the sizes of gatherings and other measures. California, which is experiencing its worst Covid-19 surge since the start of the pandemic, has imposed a shutdown that will last until after Christmas.

“People are getting exhausted, they’re getting lonely and they just want it to be over,” California Lt. Gov Eleni Kounalakis told Christiane Amanpour on CNN International.

“And so what we’re trying to do is really call upon Californians to recognize that this is the most dangerous part of the entire pandemic. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, referring to vaccines.

Seeing its own infections spike, Washington, DC, banned contact sports such as football, basketball and hockey on Monday. Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he was considering new restrictions after warning that health care workers were becoming overwhelmed and exhausted as the situation got much more dire.

Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo basked in praise from Fauci on Monday for his efforts to keep infections down. But the governor warned that his state may again experience the kinds of restrictions imposed during its terrible Covid-19 spring this year, predicting that authorities would soon have to prohibit indoor dining in New York City.

“The frustrations we are seeing here – we estimate that over 70% of the spread is coming from small gatherings,” Cuomo said. “I’ve been talking about it until I am blue in the face about the apparent safety of being home.”

Such closures will inevitably mean a deterioration in already dire economic conditions, with millions of Americans unemployed because of the pandemic and small businesses folding everywhere.

This makes it even more vital that Congress finally overcomes its divisions and produces a new Covid-19 rescue plan that will extend expired unemployment benefits and offer relief for businesses.

The best short-term hope for those Americans is an effort to fund the government with an interim bill to buy time for more stimulus talks and a broader spending bill before Christmas.