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BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Biden’s Covid-19 response is the science-based plan the US needed all along

Joe and Dr. Jill Biden walk on the national mall after a memorial service to all those who died in the Covid-19 pandemic so far.
Reuters/Callaghan O'Hare
A big job ahead.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

The Biden administration can’t undo the damage of a pandemic allowed to run amok, but it can start to bring it under control.

Now that US president Joe Biden has been sworn into office, one of the first items on his agenda will be to curb the spread of Covid-19. The official Biden website states that “public health emergencies require disciplined, trustworthy leadership grounded in science,” and has already uploaded a seven-point plan on the White House website.

It’s a stark contrast to former president Donald Trump’s administration; his office never issued a formal plan to end the pandemic, even after Trump got Covid-19 in October. And though Trump touted a plan to release vaccines, the actual number of shots in arms is running behind schedule.

Biden’s administration hopes to rapidly turn that ship around by appealing to best scientific advice available—mostly, guidance that experts been sharing for some time. Broadly, his plan can be broken down into three sections: dealing with the current pandemic, responding to the economic crises that result from the current pandemic, and making plans to prevent future pandemics from ever getting this bad.

Tackling the pandemic

The first order of business for Biden will be slowing the spread of Covid-19—a tall order, as more contagious variants circulate and the country reports more than 150,000 new cases every day. On this front, Biden is taking serious guidance from esteemed scientists. He’s already tapped former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler to head up Operation Warp Speed, and put Jeff Zients in place as the Covid-19 czar. Zients has experience in streamlining healthcare disasters from a business perspective, and famously revamped the healthcare.gov website when he served under the Obama administration.

The same day as his inauguration, Biden instated a 100-day mandate requiring certain groups wear masks, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended since April 2020. Biden suggests that all states and localities also require masks, but the federal government can’t actually enforce such a mandate. So the president’s Day One prescription applies to people under his jurisdiction: federal employees and those on federal properties, any people visiting federal buildings, and those who travel across state lines by plane, train, or local transit.

Biden also plans to use war-time measures to ramp up personal protective gear production, testing sites, and vaccination efforts. The goal of these efforts is to distribute 100 million vaccines free of charge to people living in the US within his first 100 days in office—by April 30—at which point he hopes that schools will be able to reopen. Hopefully, that effort will be tailored to maximize equity in the rollout; acknowledging that minorities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, the administration has also pledged to create a Infectious Disease Racial Disparities Task Force led by vice president Kamala Harris.

It’s unclear if the plan for vaccination efforts is realistic, though. The Trump administration has been tight-lipped about vaccine supply throughout the presidential transition. If the federal supply of vaccines is lower than expected, Biden will have a tough time ramping up distribution.

Economic recovery

Biden has already proposed an additional $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan, $25 billion of which would go directly to vaccination efforts. But the vast majority of that sum would support economic recovery directly.

About $1 trillion of the proposed plan would fund the delivery of a $1,400 stimulus check to most people living in the US. That, along with the recently-passed $600 relief checks, would make good on the $2,000 payments Biden proposed during his campaign.

The other funds would go to help small businesses reopen with ample Covid-19 precautions in place (like plexiglass and PPE for employees), based on evidence-based recommendations from the CDC. Biden’s team also hopes to have guidelines available for states and municipalities working to reopen local businesses, but like the mask mandate, the team can’t force states to follow those guidelines.

Congress would have to pass these proposals, of course, which is another area of uncertainty: Even though Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the margin is slim.

Future preparedness

It was a devastating blow for global public health when the US left the World Health Organization in April, pulling funding from the health body that unites the globe in the pursuit of public health, especially in developing nations. Biden plans to reunite the US with the WHO “immediately,” which will be integral to coordinating the US’ efforts to curb the pandemic with other countries’.

The administration plans to launch a handful of national efforts for pandemic preparedness as well. The first is restoring the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which Obama created and Trump disbanded. This group was responsible for having a plan in the face of the pandemic; not having it in place undoubtedly contributed to the lack of coordination from the Trump administration.

The next is strengthening the pandemic tracking program created by the US Agency for International Development, and CDC’s traveling infectious disease staff, who trawl the globe in search of illnesses that could become the next pandemic.

With eyes focused on the present, near, and hopefully far future, Biden’s team can start to put a dent in the biggest health crisis the US has ever seen.

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