"I lost my dad to Covid on January 8," Marissa Sanchez-Velasco says. "Then I got this job on January 12. It was just an insane period for me, mourning the loss of my dad from this terrible disease."
Sanchez-Velasco, the White House Associate Director of Communications for Covid, isn't alone. To date, the families of more than 607,000 Americans - including a disproportionately high number of Latinos - have mourned the loss of loved ones, with more deaths announced every passing day. In total, nearly 40 million cases have been recorded since the beginning of the pandemic.
"Around the holidays, especially December and January, we lost so many people," says Sanchez-Velasco, who hails from Pasadena, California. "It wasn't just my dad. Many people in my family got sick. My dad passed away. My cousin passed away, and so many Latinos around the country."
Fast forward six months, and Sanchez-Velasco forms a key part of the Biden White House's Covid-19 Response Team as it works to prevent further tragedy and get the United States back on track.
Of the several dozen members of the team, three are Latino: Sanchez-Velasco, Director of Covid-19 Intergovernmental Affairs Eduardo Cisneros and Assistant White House Press Secretary Kevin Munoz.
All three recently sat down for exclusive interviews with LPO.
Diverse backgrounds, diverse jobs
Each of these White House staffers has their own story to tell of how they found themselves in the world's most important office. Sanchez-Velasco, for example, previously worked in the Senate for then-Senator - and now Vice President - Kamala Harris.
Cisneros - another California native - was previously Director of Civic Engagement at AltaMed Health Services and the National 2020 Census Director at the NALEO Education Fund. Before that, he was National Regional Political Director for Hillary for America, and Associate Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Special Assistant to the Secretary at the Department of Labor.
Kevin Munoz, the youngest of the three, is living in DC for the first time after campaigning for Biden in his native Florida and in Nevada.
"It's been a very long, but very good, seven months. I'm working with some of the smartest, most talented, hardworking people in our country doing a very important thing," he tells LPO. "Just thinking about where we were when I walked into this office on January 21, to not wearing masks and having nearly 68% of adults vaccinated, that's pretty cool."
Within the confines of the White House, each member of staff has a particular role to play, each of which simultaneously extremely specific and far-reaching.
Cisneros, for example, plays a key liaison role between the White House's science-led Covid response team and state and local officials.
"They're the ones executing the vaccine strategy and the response, There are 64 jurisdictions that we work with that ended up getting direct vaccines. My job is working with everything from state and local to county and city elected officials."
Sanchez-Velasco and Munoz, on the other hand, deal with communications and media. In a way, the team has to help serve as a bridge between the administration's scientists - such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky - and the media and public.
"We have to think strategically. Where are we going to put them that week? Where do we need to get our message through? Where have we not really broken through? What is the topic of the week? Is it boosters, the Delta Variant,"? Sanchez-Velasco explains. "That's the sort of thing on my plate."
Conveying accurate, scientifically-sound information to Americans is a vital - perhaps most important - aspect of the administration's Covid-19 efforts as it works to vaccinate the approximately 44% of Americans who have yet to receive a dose.
Misunderstanding of the vaccine - or, in many cases, misinformation - remains a primary concern for the White House team. Just last week, President Bidens surgeon general used his first formal advisory to the United States to call misinformation an "urgent threat to public health".
As an example, Cisneros pointed to social media rumors that vaccines would make women infertile.
"We've had to communicate that that's inaccurate," he said. "Some young people also have the perception that they are immune to whatever Covid throws at them, and others have this notion that they don't need to get vaccinated because they are naturally immune."
In many cases, the team has found that the secret to getting through to hard-to-reach or sometimes reluctant parts of the population is merely a matter of finding the right incentive - such as free burritos at Chipotle - or the right medium.
"Take my little brother. He didn't read the news," Munoz notes. "He's on TikTok, and we're having Dr. Fauci on TikTok to talk to influencers with 20 or 25 million followers and making sure we have those conversations there. I'd expect a lot more concerted efforts like that."
In the near-term, the team's primary concern is the now dominant Delta variant, which is being blamed for a rise in Covid-19 cases across the country.
"We're seeing Delta pop up in places like Missouri, Arkansas, and now across the country, in New Jersey and California and everywhere else," Cisneros explains. "Our role at the White House is to coordinate the interagency response to that."
National statistics show that 99% of the US' Covid-19 deaths in June were among unvaccinated people. Individual states - such as Florida and North Carolina - reported the same statistic.
"The good news is that every piece of data that we continue to see it from the authorized vaccines here shows that they're providing a very high degree of protection against the Delta variant," Munoz said. "At the same time, there are communities and areas with lower vaccination rates and we'll see cases rise."
Room for Optimism
While work remains to be done, all three members of the team expressed their belief that the US has emerged from the worst of the pandemic, and expressed optimism about the future.
"In America, we're very fortunate to have been able to provide the vaccine to everybody," Munoz said. "It's a miracle of science and logistics to make sure that 90% of Americans live within five miles of a site."
Sanchez-Velasco - who experienced the devastating impact of the pandemic first-hand - points to her own experiences visiting her community in California over the Fourth of July weekend as evidence that the administration's strategy is working.
"I had a moment where I was able to hug people. I'd see people walking on the street and I didn't feel anxiety that they're not wearing a mask," she said. "I had family together for the first time....just being there and being able to be in a room with 20 other people was pretty perfect."
"I cannot describe to you the weight that was off my shoulder," she added. "I can see the differences reflected in the community. But we still have some work to do."
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