The fight against COVID-19: What will change under Biden
TORONTO -- The inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden doesn’t just mark the end of Donald Trump’s presidency but it also signals a new direction in the effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic in America.
To political and health experts critical of Trump’s response, the twice-impeached president’s pandemic action plan was one of inaction that led the country to world-leader status in deaths and infections.
Over the final 45 weeks of Trump’s time in office, more than 24 million people contracted the novel coronavirus in the U.S., more than 400,000 of whom died. That death toll is expected to surge to 500,000 by the end of next month.
With Wednesday’s inauguration, the Biden administration is now forced to play a bleak sort of catch up, say experts.
“Many of the things in Biden’s plans are rooted in the science of what we know from the last 10 months,” said Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician in Hamilton, Ont.
At the same time as considering strategies to accelerate mass immunization, such as eking out extra doses from vials of vaccine, Biden’s plan must involve what political commentator Ezra Klein characterized as “maddeningly obvious” steps skipped by the Trump administration.
“That there is so much low-hanging operational fruit for the Biden administration to focus on instead is a tragedy,” Klein wrote in The New York Times. “It means people who could’ve been saved by simple competence and foresight will die instead.”
Here are some of the key ways in which the Biden plan to clamp down on the virus differs from Trump’s year leading during a pandemic.
LEADERSHIP AND CONSISTENCY
Not since 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in during the Great Depression, has a president stepped in at a more fractious time, said political historian David Eisenbach on CTV News Channel on Wednesday. At that time, Roosevelt used his inaugural address to demand executive powers that would allow him to address the crisis from a federal position.
“This is a similar thing. Right now the United States has lost about the comparable number from the Second World War,” said Eisenbach. “That’s what Joe Biden needs to call for -- a federal mobilization.”
In his inaugural speech on Wednesday, Biden stayed away from specific plans, but echoed earlier statements about unifying to fight COVID-19. “We're entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said. “We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”
In “Joe and Kamala’s Plan to Beat COVID-19,” a seven-pronged pandemic strategy outlined in the fall, the new administration said it planned to provide “clear, consistent, evidence-based national guidance” and launch a co-ordinated federal campaign that would include funding for states and a revamped testing campaign to "fix Trump’s testing-and-tracing fiasco." As part of its federal initiative, Biden also appointed Jeff Zients, a former Barack Obama administration official, as the federal leader for the pandemic strategy.
A federal task force that doesn’t leave small jurisdictions to fend for themselves has been lacking since the beginning, said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s optimistic that the Biden team will fix that.
“We’re definitely hopeful,” he told CTV News Channel on Wednesday. “Couldn’t have been any worse than the last administration. Local counties and states were really desperate for federal leadership, not only federal leadership to support efforts for testing, health promotion and masking requirements, but leadership that can guide the country to come together to really tackle this epidemic.”
No one expects the pandemic outlook in the U.S. to shift overnight, but these leadership promises are already beyond what the Trump administration offered last year, said political commentator Scott Reid on CTV News Channel.
“You won’t get a complete reversal of fortunes in the United States,” he said, noting that all of America is unlikely to concede with current and future public health directives.
“But what you will get for certain is a presidency that is insistent and consistent on this point. And the ambivalence and incoherence that we saw under Trump will vanish … We will get that consistency from Joe Biden. Public health will be focused and public health measures will be pursued.”
TRUST IN SCIENCE
Those public health measured to be pursued will also be grounded in science, a tenet of pandemic response that the Biden administration will not take lightly. A striking irony of the state of the pandemic in the U.S. is that the country remains a world leader in COVID-19 science, said Ontario infectious disease physician Chagla. The U.S. manufactures the Moderna vaccine at home, has developed a variety of testing mechanisms and is producing major evidence-based treatments for COVID-19.
“They are one of the world leaders, but it’s disappointing to see in this last year, how little respect that science has been given in part of society,” said Chagla in an interview with CTVNews.ca. While figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci were featured prominently earlier in the pandemic, their presence waned over time as their expertise conflicted with Trump’s messaging.
“Rather than creating an antagonistic relationship with the science when it doesn’t support the convenience of the message, being open and letting the science dictate the message is going to be so important with this population,” said Chagla.
“Biden doesn’t have to go far to find people that are experts in their field.”
Not only is the U.S. a leader in science, but there have long been established guidelines for federal leaders to take during a public health crisis, said international security specialist Jeanne Meserve, who herself participated in “pandemic preparedness exercises” over the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“There were playbooks. They knew what to do. They knew where there would be problem areas. We have to remember that the Trump administration threw that playbook out the window,” said Meserve on CTV News Channel on Wednesday. “Fortunately, Joe Biden is dipping back into the people with expertise and bringing them forward to play a part in his response.”
Last week, Biden announced a landmark appointment of the White House science advisor Dr. Eric Lander to cabinet, the first time the director of the Science and Technology Policy team would serve as a member of the executive branch.
SCALED UP PRODUCTION
Mass immunization is the most important strategy the Biden administration has for making a dent in the rapid spread of SARS-COV-2 in the U.S, said Chagla.
“That is going to be the way out,” he told CTVNews.ca. “The big measures like shutdowns, lockdowns, may work to help slow the impact. But really their way out … is going to be a mass vaccine campaign. That clock needs to start going as fast as possible.”
Biden said he will invoke the Defense Production Act to boost testing capacity, speed up the manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE), vaccines and vaccine materials. So far, the campaign to vaccinate Americans has been relatively slow compared to supply. Of the more than 30 million doses delivered about 15.7 million have been administered.
If Biden’s administration is successful at clamping down on the spread of the virus, it won’t only have an impact on the lives of million of people in the U.S., it will have an impact on how the role of government in a time of crisis is perceived, said Keesha Middlemass, a political science professor at Howard University.
“If he can wrap his arms around COVID and show a competent response that government does have a role within society, particularly as it relates to public health, that will be the important notion for his administration,” she told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
“When we got back in the classroom and start talking about the importance of institutions, we can literally hold up a contrast between the current administration and what we just saw in the past.”
WHAT CANADA CAN LEARN
While the Canadian government has implemented a federal strategy from the start of the pandemic, infectious disease expert Zain Chagla says Canada could still take a page from Biden's COVID-19 book, particularly as it relates to his testing plans. The new president plans to fix what his administration called "Trump’s testing-and-tracing fiasco" with increased access to rapid testing, including at-home COVID-19 kits, which Chagla said could be useful in Canada even after vaccinations ramp up.
"Even if we get through a vaccine campaign, we're going to still need to identify people with COVID-19 and trace them appropriately," he told CTVNews.ca. "We may have to look to the United States and say that testing approach makes sense here too."