How Biden will change the national COVID response

President-elect Joe Biden.
President-elect Joe Biden.
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President-elect Joe Biden is already beginning to shape how the nation is responding to the pandemic.

How Biden will change the national COVID response

The president-elect is already shaping things on Day -72 of his presidency.
November 9, 2020

There are more than two months to go until President Donald Trump will leave the White House, but President-elect Joe Biden is already beginning to shape how the nation is responding to the pandemic.

new transition advisory board filled with scientists is an early signal of a more conventional approach to public health. New federal stimulus funding looks increasingly likely for state and local governments. Public confidence in future COVID-19 vaccines could even get a big boost now that no one has to worry about anything getting approved before the election. 

Infection rates are rising statewide and, nationwide, more than 100,000 additional cases have been reported each of the past five days. The upcoming months will likely prove fateful despite the opportunity for a fresh start on the policy-making side, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The federal government has always been wrong throughout COVID,” he told reporters on a Monday conference call. “We have to get it right this time.”

Trump is going to be president for two more months and he will no doubt have an outsized impact on the federal pandemic response even as he continues trying to overturn the results of the election. Federal agencies and other instruments of power still remain under his control, but there are opportunities for Biden to wield formidable soft power over public opinion, elected officials and the business community.

Here are five ways that Biden will affect the pandemic response moving forward.

Using a new type of moral bully pulpit

Public experts say that elected officials can do a lot to contain the coronavirus by setting a good example for others. It is not hard to see how Biden will be very different from Trump when it comes to wearing a maskspreading fact-based information, and using science to guide public health decision-making. The images of Biden meeting with members of his new advisers via videolink is just one example of how the president-elect is contrasting himself with Trump months before the actual transfer of power would happen. Needless to say, the incoming administration is also talking a lot more than Trump about dealing with the longtime racial inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. And the more public attention given to Biden’s proposals, the less political oxygen there is for the Trump administration to push its hands-off approach to the pandemic. 

Ensuring old strategies get new resources

In theory, only three things have to happen to end the pandemic, even without a vaccine: testing has to identify positive cases; those infected must isolate; and contact tracers must then figure out who else might have gotten the coronavirus. That appears simple, but a lot of states have been pretty bad at it. Even New York has fallen short at times. A federal effort across 50 states could really reinvigorate the whole overall effort, but that all depends on whether Biden can make good on his newly unveiled plan to create a 100,000-person U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps. The president-elect is also promising to increase drive-through testing sites. A federal mask mandate is no given, but state governors and local officials could get on the good side of the new Democratic administration by imposing their own rules in the meantime.

Making businesses produce more than pork

Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in April to compel meat processers to continue supplying the nation with beef, pork and poultry despite the risks of coronavirus spread in crowded processing facilities. Biden is looking to do the same with the personal protective equipment and other supplies that frontline workers desperately need. They need these things sooner rather than later as hospitals and ICUs continue filling up nationwide. This could mean that Biden would be most effective by wielding his soft power as the president-elect to pressure manufacturers to step up production in the upcoming weeks rather than waiting for the federal government to force them to act in January. 

Doing more for New Yorkers than funding

Biden is looking to spend political capital on new aid for state and local governments, which would make a big difference for helping New York City and state overcome multibillion-dollar budget deficits in their current fiscal year. New federal aid is also vital for helping the Metropolitan Transportation Authority avoid massive layoffs and cuts to service in the coming months. 

Trump and congressional Republicans could also end up deciding that it is better to pass their own preferred version of stimulus funding in the lame duck session while they are still guaranteed to hold the U.S. Senate. That might end up working out better for the GOP than waiting to see what happens with two January run-off elections in Georgia that could swing the chamber to the Democrats. No matter who controls Congress, Biden will have significant leeway to take executive actions to help New Yorkers’ bottom lines in other ways, like by deferring student debt and keeping the national eviction moratorium going in 2021. 

Safeguarding Vaccine distribution 

If all goes well, one of several vaccine candidates will get emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration sometime between late November and the beginning of 2021. Planning is already underway for how to distribute it, which will give the Trump administration two months to still weigh in. Critics like Cuomo have raised concerns about the current plans to distribute the vaccine, especially about whether people of color and other vulnerable communities will have enough access initially. There are also outstanding concerns about whether political considerations have led to a rushed approval process. A Biden administration that relies on public health experts could win more credibility for a vaccine. 

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.