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

FILE PHOTO: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks at a media conference in Los Angeles
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks at a media conference in Los Angeles, California, U.S. August 2, 2018.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Trevor Hunnicutt, Reuters

President-elect Joe Biden said he will nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services on Monday as one of the top officials on his team to fight the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden chose Becerra, 62, a Latino former congressman, as he 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 novel 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.

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

“This team of world-class medical experts and public servants will be ready on day one to mobilize every resource of the federal government to expand testing and masking,” Biden said in a statement, adding that they would “oversee the safe, equitable, and free distribution of treatments and vaccines.”

Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, has announced top nominees for his national security and economic teams. He has pressed ahead with the transition to the White House even as President Donald Trump refuses to concede the Nov. 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 adds a political operator to a health effort that would otherwise largely rely on government administrators and health experts.

Becerra played a role in passing the Affordable Care Act, Democratic former President Barack Obama’s main domestic policy achievement, during his time in Congress. In his current role in California leads the coalition of 20 states defending the program better known as Obamacare against Republican attacks, 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 an ally of both 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 also picked Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, to run the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, as his chief medical adviser.

The former vice president also named Jeff Zients, an economic adviser touted for his managerial skills, as a coronavirus “czar” to oversee a COVID-19 response that will soon include 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. He also chose Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, to lead a group to deal with addressing disproportionate illness from COVID-19 among Black and Latino Americans.

Becerra served as a Democratic U.S. 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.