Jul 2, 2020 - Health

How Joe Biden would tackle the coronavirus

Illustration of America falling into a giant surgical mask as if it's a safety net.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If Joe Biden wins in November, his coronavirus response would feature a no-expenses-spared federal approach to mitigating the virus and a beefed-up safety net for those suffering its economic consequences.

Why it matters: It’s nearly inevitable that the U.S. will still be dealing with the pandemic come January 2021, meaning voters in America will choose between two very different options for dealing with it.

The big picture: The Trump administration has opted into a largely state-led response to the virus, with some guidance and assistance provided by the federal government. Science and the advice of public health officials has, at times, taken a backseat to economic considerations.

  • Biden’s response would be drastically different: a massive, federally-driven effort in which no cost would be too high.

Details: America would literally look different, as Biden would "insist" that people wear masks in public. (Think of how that will go over in the red states.)

  • Biden's campaign argues that without Trump in office, and with a greater commitment to meeting state and local needs, there won't be as much division over how to address the virus. "I don’t think you'd see the politicization of the response that you see today," said Ariana Berengaut, a Biden policy adviser.

But the role of the federal government would be enhanced far beyond that.

  • A federal Pandemic Testing Board would oversee efforts to produce more testing supplies, coordinate test distribution and create guidance for who should be tested.
  • The federal government would also provide and pay for testing for every worker who is called back to work and set up a national contact tracing workforce of at least 100,000.
  • Biden would name a “Supply Commander,” whose job would be to work with governors to determine states’ needs for equipment, protective gear or medication and to coordinate production and delivery of these supplies.
  • And he'd use the Defense Production Act to ramp up supply production, particularly of personal protective equipment.
  • “The country won’t be strong until every single state has what it needs to respond to this, and that’s where the federal government can play a strong role,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Yes, but: A federal role of this magnitude may be hard to fit into the U.S.’s federalist system, some experts warn.

  • “I think there’s definitely a role for the federal government to ensure that we have a stockpile, for example, that we are ensuring there’s access to a pipeline of supplies and we have a good sense that there is an availability of these things,” said Lanhee Chen, director of domestic policy studies at Stanford University.
  • “But in terms of actually distributing tests and figuring out at a very granular level who needs what, I’m just not sure that’s necessarily responsive to the reality of how these things get done,” he added.

The plan is sure to be massively expensive, but the Biden campaign didn't provide an estimate of the cost.

  • "Vice President Biden will spend whatever it takes to get COVID-19 under control so we can save lives and get Americans back to work," a Biden official said.

The Biden plan would also double down on the effort to ensure that coronavirus testing and treatment is free. Although Congress tried to require insurers to cover testing, loopholes have emerged, and treatment hasn’t been addressed legislatively.

  • Biden would also have the federal government cover the cost of keeping laid-off workers on their employer health plans, reopen enrollment for the Affordable Care Act exchanges and increase federal Medicaid payments.

Like the virus itself, Biden’s response would go far beyond the realm of public health.

  • Essential workers would have much more substantial protections, including access to personal protective equipment, coronavirus testing and child care assistance. They’d also receive premium pay.
  • Workers who become infected by the virus would have paid leave, paid for by the federal government, for the entirety of the time it takes them to recover and complete a quarantine.
  • The federal government would also fund a broad category of paid leave, including for workers who are caring for people who have the virus and those who can’t work because they are at increased risk for the virus.
  • Unemployment benefits would be expanded so laid-off workers who can’t look for new jobs could receive them, and so workers who have received a reduction in hours could receive partial unemployment benefits.

Yes, but: Many of these changes would have to go through Congress, where there’s already debate underway about whether the U.S.’s initial aid packages have created work disincentives and whether the federal government should send more aid to state and local governments.

  • “I don’t think there’s anything in here that I can think of that doesn’t need to be done, per se,” Nuzzo said. “I think just the biggest question is, will there be political will to do this? Particularly from a budget standpoint.”
  • Chen's verdict: “I think once you start talking more about paid leave for everybody, it becomes more of a challenge.”
Go deeper