Biden picks Becerra as health secretary as he builds team to battle COVID-19

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President-elect Joe Biden will nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services as soon as Monday, a source familiar with the decision said, as he builds up his team to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The choice of Becerra, 62, a Latino former congressman, comes as Biden faces more pressure to add diversity to his cabinet appointments, including complaints from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the number of Latinos.

Becerra will lead the health agency as officials struggle to contain a resurgence of the coronavirus, including record infections and a daily death toll that has exceeded 2 000 in recent days, and to prepare for a mammoth effort to vaccinate Americans against the virus.

More than 281 000 Americans have died from the COVID-19 disease, according to a Reuters tally.

The person with knowledge of Becerra’s appointment declined to be identified because the personnel decision had not yet been announced.

Biden, who named some top members of his health team last week, is expected to roll out more members this week as he fills in key roles in his cabinet ahead of taking office on January 20. He already has announced top nominees for his national security and economic teams.

Biden has pressed ahead with the transition to the White House even as President Donald Trump refuses to concede the November 3 election and wages a foundering effort to overturn the results. Dozens of Trump’s legal challenges have been rejected by the courts, often in scathing terms.

Trump suffered another setback on Sunday when the leader of his legal team, personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, tested positive for COVID-19. A source familiar with the situation said Giuliani was admitted to a Washington, D.C., hospital.

“I’m getting great care and feeling good. Recovering quickly and keeping up with everything,” Giuliani tweeted on Sunday night.

Biden’s choice of Becerra gives him an administrator with a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act – former President Barack Obama’s key domestic policy achievement.

Becerra played a key role in passing the landmark law during his time in Congress, and in his current role in California leads the coalition of 20 states defending the program better known as Obamacare, including in a case before the Supreme Court last month.

“Biden is living up to his commitment to make the cabinet a reflection of diversity,” said Robert Garcia, mayor of Long Beach, California, and a longtime ally of Becerra and Biden.

Garcia said Becerra “has a strong record on healthcare but I think it goes beyond that. The president-elect selected someone with the highest levels of integrity and intellect.”

Biden is also expected to nominate Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, to run the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a different person familiar with hiring for the President-elect’s health team said.

Biden already has asked Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, to stay on as chief medical adviser.

The former vice president also has named Jeff Zients, an economic adviser touted for his managerial skills, as a coronavirus “czar” to oversee an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.

Biden picked Vivek Murthy, a physician and former surgeon general who has gained prominence in recent months as co-chairman of Biden’s advisory board dealing with the pandemic, to return for a second term as surgeon general.

Becerra served as a Democratic US representative from 1993 to 2017 before moving back to his home state to become attorney general. In that post, he succeeded Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.