Health Experts Weigh In On Biden’s COVID-19 Plan

Expect the President-elect to “listen to the scientists.”

by JR Thorpe
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Nov. 9, President-elect Biden took the first steps in his multi-stage plan for tackling the coronavirus pandemic, announcing a task force who'll advise him going forward. His team has been honing their strategy on the campaign trail for months, and Biden's plans for COVID-19 look like a huge departure from the Trump administration's.

The damage wrought by COVID-19 has already been substantial, to put it mildly. "By the time that the Biden-Harris administration takes over, this virus is going to have already run rampant through the communities across the United States," Dr. Megan Ranney M.D., an emergency physician at Brown University, told CNN on Sunday. But Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have announced ambitious plans to tackle it as soon as they reach the White House in January 2021.

"Their challenge between now and Jan. 20 will be to give the American people confidence that we can take major steps to better contain the virus, while we wait for broad availability of a vaccine," Jeffrey Levi Ph.D., a professor of health policy and management at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, tells Bustle.

Here's what the Biden administration plans to do about the coronavirus pandemic in the next few months and into the future.

Who'll Advise The Biden Administration On The COVID-19 Pandemic?

The task force Biden announced on Nov. 9 is packed with scientists and public health experts, headed by ex-FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler M.D., ex-Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy M.D., and Yale professor Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith M.D. The group includes virologists, biodefense experts, pandemic specialists, and emergency medics.

"His scientific task force includes a number of global health experts, a clear departure from the 'go it alone' approach to the pandemic by the Trump administration," Dr. Nancy Nielsen M.D. Ph.D., senior associate dean for health policy in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo, tells Bustle. "That will be a huge difference from the current administration, which has sought to undercut and politicize its COVID task force scientific advisers, and repeatedly tried to influence decisions by the CDC and FDA."

Biden's is a task force with extensive scientific experience, Edward Allera, co-chair of the Life Sciences Group at legal firm Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, and an expert on the FDA, tells Bustle. "This group will be able to provide a different perspective on the continued fight against COVID-19, and how best to deal with rapidly evolving science and provide guidance on distribution of products to address public health needs.” Biden's fulfilling Trump's taunt that he'll "listen to the scientists."

Per Biden's transition website, there's also going to be a COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force that monitors structural and racial inequalities in COVID-19 response, and how to fix them.

Will Biden Establish A National Mask Mandate?

One reason the pandemic has gone uncontrolled in the U.S., experts say, is the lack of national guidance around mask-wearing, which is left up to individual state, county, or municipal leaders to enforce. A Biden administration will change that to an extent.

"Biden’s approach will be much more federalist [than Trump's]," Dr Nielsen says. "He will exhort and model behaviors that really matter, but over which he does not have actual jurisdiction, such as a national mask mandate." In a speech on Nov. 9, Biden implored Americans to wear masks at all times.

Being federalist means Biden will approach COVID-19 from a national standpoint, rather than leaving it to individual states to make their own decisions, as has been the case throughout the Trump presidency. "He will insist on coordination with states rather than leaving them on their own to obtain needed supplies and equipment, do testing and tracing, and receive therapeutic agents and vaccines," Dr. Nielsen says. His COVID Plan includes plans for nationwide coordination on everything from PPE to school openings.

When it comes to physically enforcing mask use, Dr. Nielsen says Biden can order masks to be worn on all federal property and on transportation between states, but he can't use his authority to mandate mask-wearing everywhere. He'll encourage governors to mandate and enforce mask-wearing, though, the BBC reports, and if that doesn't work he'll campaign on the local level among mayors and county executives.

But Jan. 21 is still 10 weeks away. "The big unknown is whether the partisan divide around important measures such as wearing masks can be diffused while President Trump continues to undermine sound policy approaches," Levi says.

How Will Biden Track The Spread Of COVID-19?

One of the cornerstones of Biden's COVID policy has been a national track-and-trace system. On the campaign trail, he proposed a U.S. Public Health corps of around 100,000 people to assist with putting it together. This will likely be one of his executive orders to make sure it avoids political gridlock, Dr. Nielsen says. Science reports he's also planning to double the number of drive-through testing sites and increase testing by orders of magnitude.

"The task force will be supported by people with great experience in mobilizing the federal government to respond to a crisis," Levi says. In other words, expect this to proceed pretty fast once he's in office.

What Will Biden Do About PPE Shortages?

Shortages of PPE, or personal protective equipment, have been a problem for U.S. healthcare workers for months, according to the Harvard Business Review, and Biden's transition website says he aims to tackle that problem head-on. "Biden will invoke the Defense Production Act if necessary for PPEs such as gloves, gowns, masks, hand sanitizer and so on," emergency physician Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D. tells Bustle. She says that while the Trump administration used the Defense Production Act to produce ventilators, it's stayed away from using it for PPE.

Will Travel Restrictions Change Under A Biden Presidency?

There's no current report on how a Biden presidency will target COVID-19 travel restrictions, aside from his commitment to listen to the CDC's advice. He has committed to rescinding the so-called "Muslim ban" that prevents people from 13 countries entering the U.S., and has said he'll rejoin the World Health Organization, which distributes advice on safe travel during COVID-19. The WHO will likely factor into the U.S.'s approach once he's in office. You'll probably see laws about wearing masks when traveling between states, according to Science.

How Will Biden Roll Out A COVID-19 Vaccine?

With the news that Pfizer and BioNTech have a vaccine with an estimated 90% success rate (though they'll submit their full data set to the FDA at the end of November) there's a new focus on how Biden will roll out a vaccine to the public. Dr. Nielsen says equitable vaccine delivery was part of Biden's plan while campaigning. He's now committed to funneling $25 billion into vaccine development and distribution, per his transition website, making all FDA data on vaccine science transparent and publicly available, and ensuring vaccines are free for everybody.

What About Health Insurance & Stimulus Checks During The Pandemic?

Biden's plans for the economy are likely to include a second stimulus check and expanded unemployment benefit as part of an extensive recovery plan for the economy, according to his transition website. Health insurance will come under the microscope, too. "He will create marketplace special enrollment periods for those who lost jobs and therefore health insurance in the pandemic," Dr. Nielsen says.

Healthcare in the U.S. is always complicated. "The U.S. has a very decentralized public health system, so the new Administration will need the cooperation of states with diverse political perspectives," Levi says. Plus the Supreme Court is about to hear a case about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Biden's healthcare plans, pandemic and otherwise, hinge on what might happen with that case.

"The Biden approach to the pandemic is a return to science- and public health-driven policy making," Levi says. And it's already starting to take shape.


Edward Allera

Jeffrey Levi Ph.D.

Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D.

Dr. Nancy Nielsen M.D. Ph.D.