President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 task force boasts a number of impressive names, from former U.S Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler to Rick Bright, the former head of the vaccine-development agency BARDA, and Celine Gounder, a physician with long experience fighting HIV and tuberculosis outbreaks.
It's a first-class group with one glaring weakness: There is no high-level expert on mental health on the team. Biden should move quickly to address the issue.
To be sure, most of the focus in the coming months will be in assessing the safety and effectiveness of new COVID-19 vaccines and making sure they reach a public willing to accept them. But there is no vaccine in the offing for the mushrooming mental health crisis brought on by the fear, isolation and uncertainty of these last nine months.
"The mental health crisis triggered by COVID-19 is escalating rapidly," psychology professors Jane Gruber and Jonathan Rottenberg wrote this spring for the public affairs website The Conversation, before the second wave of the pandemic began to sweep the nation. U.S. adults are eight times more likely to meet the criteria for serious mental distress as they were two years ago. One-third of Americans now report clinically significant symptoms of anxiety or clinical depression, according to a late May 2020 release of Census Bureau data.
Prolonged quarantine, scattered school sessions and financial insecurity have also had an effect on children. The Centers for Disease Control noted earlier this month that since the beginning of the pandemic in March, emergency room visits related to mental health rose dramatically for school-aged children and adolescents compared to the previous year.
It's not just patients and those isolated at home who are suffering, the British medical journal The Lancet notes: "Health-care workers are essential to the COVID-19 response but may have to leave the workforce if their mental health is not protected."
Addressing the range of mental health issues brought on by the pandemic requires a coordinated, nationwide approach, much like the efforts to stem COVID-19 itself.
But none of the task force members are considered leading voices in the field of mental health in the way, say, Dr. Anthony Fauci is for infectious diseases. Such a presence is necessary on the task force if it is to be truly able to lead us out of the coronavirus pandemic and the long shadow it will cast for years to come.