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Rutgers professor discusses Biden's coronavirus responses plans

Michael Gusmano, professor in the Department of Health Behavior, Society and Policy and director of the Health Systems and Policy concentration, said President-elect Joe Biden has already begun changing the tone of national discussion regarding the pandemic. – Photo by Courtesy of Michael Gusmano

With President-elect Joe Biden’s transition to the White House officially under way, his team can now take his plans for addressing the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic to federal officials and agencies. 

Michael Gusmano, professor in the Department of Health Behavior, Society and Policy and director of the Health Systems and Policy concentration, said he believes Biden’s plans are sound, though the President-elect will continue to face significant obstacles in implementing them.

He said Biden’s plans to increase federal funding for testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution, if approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), would increase the ability of state and local health departments to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“One of the most important dimensions of (Biden’s) approach is the change in tone we will hear from the White House,” Gusmano said. “Unlike President (Donald J.) Trump, President-elect Biden has consistently recognized the threat of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and has called for following the research and advice of the public health community.”

He said it is important for messaging from political leaders concerning the pandemic to be consistent and science-based, but many simple and effective public health measures, such as wearing a mask in public, have become politicized.

“Wearing a mask has nothing to do with being a Republican or Democrat, but the current president has linked public health efforts to partisan identity in ways that are unfortunate and damaging,” Gusmano said. “If President-elect Biden can help to reverse that, it will be useful.”

Reversing this politicization will be a challenge, he said. Though Biden has been discussing with governors the adoption of a national mask mandate, Gusmano said the Biden Administration will likely face resistance from many Republican governors in this and other restrictive public health measures where states have primary authority.

He said Biden can create a COVID-19 task force and invoke the Defense Production Act for supplying personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical equipment through executive orders, but he will need the cooperation of Congress for many of his other goals, such as increased funding for testing, vaccine distribution and financial aid for individuals and businesses.

“As a result, a great deal is at stake in the runoff election in Georgia,” Gusmano said. “If the Democrats win both seats, they will have a slim majority in the Senate … If they do not win both seats, the Republicans will still have a majority in the Senate.”

Before the 2010 midterm elections, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said his main priority was to make former President Barack Obama a one-term president, Gusmano said. 

“If he adopts the same approach toward cooperation with the Biden administration, the Democrats will need at least a few Republican senators to vote against their party to fund the Biden administration’s COVID-19 initiatives,” he said. “This is possible, but will make it incredibly difficult for the Biden administration to fully adopt and implement its plan.”

Gusmano said Biden has already begun two of the most important steps for addressing COVID-19 in his transition: changing the tone of national discussion about the pandemic and paying attention to the scientific community.

He said it is also crucial to increase federal government funding for state and local health departments. These departments are running COVID-19 tests and contact tracing programs and will be asked to help with vaccine distribution, which can be logistically challenging, Gusmano said.

“Given the effect of the pandemic on state revenues, most of these departments are stretched to their limits,” he said. “The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) can help the state and local public health system by providing accurate and timely data that is not influenced by political factors, but these departments also need additional money from the federal government to perform these critical tasks effectively.”

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