WILMINGTON, Del., Nov. 9 (Reuters) — U.S. President-elect Joe Biden implored Americans on Monday to wear protective masks to combat the coronavirus pandemic, appealing to their patriotism, as he convened a task force to devise a blueprint for tackling the public health crisis.
"We could save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Not Democratic or Republican lives. American lives," Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware. "I implore you. Wear a mask. Do it for yourself. Do it for your neighbor. A mask is not a political statement."
The pandemic has killed more than 237,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work. Biden spoke two days after clinching election victory over Donald Trump, though the Republican president has not acknowledged defeat and is pursuing legal challenges to the results while making unfounded claims of fraud.
Biden, set to take office on Jan. 20, conferred by video with his 13-member task force, headed by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler and Yale University healthcare equity expert Marcella Nunez-Smith.
The president-elect labeled as "great news" Pfizer Inc.'s announcement on Monday that its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective. But Biden said it would be "many more months before there is widespread vaccination" in the United States and underscored the importance of wearing protective masks and social distancing.
Watch video of Biden's Delware press conference below:
The United States has been registering record high infection numbers in recent days. Mask wearing has become a political issue in the United States, with Trump mocking Biden for wearing a mask during the campaign and many conservatives contending masks infringe upon their individual freedom.
"The goal is to get back to normal as fast as possible," Biden said. "And masks are critical in doing that. It won't be forever. But that's how we'll get our nation back up to speed economically, so we can go back to celebrating birthdays and holidays together, so we can attend sporting events together, so that we can get back to the lives and connections we shared before the pandemic."
Biden during the campaign accused Trump of panicking and surrendering to the pandemic. Trump promoted unproven medicines, assailed public health experts, failed to signal empathy or compassion as the death toll mounted and disregarded advice on mask wearing and social distancing, ending up hospitalized in October receiving treatments for COVID-19.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson on Monday became the latest close Trump associate to test positive for the virus, his chief of staff said, just days after White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also tested positive.
Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE are the first drugmakers to release successful data from a large-scale clinical trial of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Biden said his team will focus on making rapid COVID-19 testing widely available and building a corps of contact-tracers to track and curb the pathogen's spread and prioritize vulnerable populations. Biden said his administration would work to get an approved vaccine "distributed as quickly as possible to as many Americans as possible, free of charge."
The task force will liaise with local and state officials to consider how to safely reopen schools and businesses and tackle racial disparities.
The Biden panel includes Rick Bright, a whistleblower who says he was removed from his Trump administration post for raising concerns about coronavirus preparedness, and Luciana Borio, who specializes in complex public health emergencies.
Vice President Mike Pence is due to meet on Monday with the White House coronavirus task force for the first time since October.
Biden cleared the threshold of 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency on Saturday, four days after the Nov. 3 election. He beat Trump by more than 4.3 million votes nationwide, with Trump becoming the first U.S. president since 1992 to lose a reelection bid.
Trump does not budge
Trump has often attacked the integrity of the U.S. voting process without offering evidence. Some of his allies have encouraged him to exhaust every recourse for hanging onto power. He has filed an array of lawsuits to press his claims and plans rallies to build support for his election challenge, campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
Asked when Trump would concede or call Biden, Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller on Monday told Fox Business Network: "That word's not even in our vocabulary now. We're going to pursue all these legal means, all the recount methods."
Trump has been talking with his advisers about the possibility of running for president in 2024, a source familiar with the discussions said.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien held an all-staff meeting at campaign headquarters on Monday to give the message that Trump is "still in this fight," a source familiar with the meeting said. The source said the meeting was aimed at bolstering morale given that the last paycheck everyone is to receive is on Nov. 15.
Governments from around the world have congratulated Biden since Saturday, signaling they are turning the page.
Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies have said interfered in the 2016 election to support Trump and then sought to disparage Biden in this year's race, said on Monday it would wait for the official results before commenting, noting Trump's legal challenges. China was similarly cautious.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Andrea Shalal in Washington and Simon Lewis and Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Jason Lange, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Makini Brice, Alexandra Alper and Steve Holland in Washington and Costas Pitas in London; Writing by Will Dunham and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone, Catherine Evans and Grant McCool)