Biden faces challenges in quickly combating the pandemic

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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at Cellairis Amphitheatre in Atlanta, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WILIMINGTON, Del. – If Joe Biden wins next week's election, he says he'll immediately call Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert. He'll work with governors and local officials to institute a nationwide mask-wearing mandate and ask Congress to pass a sweeping spending bill by the end of January to address the coronavirus and its fallout.

That alone would mark a significant shift from President Donald Trump, who has feuded with scientists, struggled to broker a new stimulus deal and reacted to the recent surge in U.S. virus cases by insisting the country is “rounding the turn.”

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But Biden would still face significant political challenges in combating the worst public health crisis in a century. He will encounter the limits of federal powers when it comes to mask requirements and is sure to face resistance from Republicans who may buck additional spending.

“There are no magic wands,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins University and former Maryland state health department chief who recently briefed Biden on reopening schools during the pandemic. "It’s not like there’s an election, and then the virus beats a hasty retreat.”

Biden's handling of the coronavirus is taking on new urgency as cases spike around the country. Average deaths per day nationwide are up 10% over the past two weeks, from 721 to nearly 794 as of Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Confirmed infections per day are rising in 47 states, and deaths are up in 34.

Meanwhile, a fresh outbreak of cases at the White House among Vice President Mike Pence's staff has revived concerns about the impact of the virus on the government.

The early days of a Biden administration would be consumed by a pandemic response.

“I’m here to tell you we can and will get control of this virus,” Biden said Tuesday during a campaign stop in Georgia. “As president, I will never wave the white flag of surrender.”

A $3 trillion spending package that cleared the Democratic-controlled House has stalled in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold the majority. Biden has called the Senate GOP “so damn stupid” for not passing that measure, but has failed to propose a single comprehensive package of his own.

Instead, he has said Congress should approve $30 billion to help schools reopen and has proposed a $700 billion economic plan. But that plan isn't solely focused on the coronavirus and includes provisions to boost industries like manufacturing to create jobs and help revive the economy when the pandemic begins to subside.

Biden also wants to declare reopening schools a “national emergency” and access potentially billions more dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster response aid. He’d seek a national system for tracing the exposure path for those diagnosed with the virus — part of a larger public health corps that Biden suggests might function like the civilian-led conservation corps that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created during the New Deal.

And he's vowed to increase testing capacity in every state until the U.S. is screening daily the 7.5 million people it currently tests per week, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

On other fronts, Biden's plans seem to be contingent on winning over allies and rivals alike, which may be challenging in the aftermath of a bitter election. He has called for a rule requiring masks in public for everyone, something the federal government doesn’t actually have the power to implement. Instead, Biden says he’ll impose such a mandate for all federal buildings and on federally funded, interstate transit.

Some Republican governors, including in states like North Dakota where virus cases are on the rise, refuse to implement mask requirements. Biden says he'll lobby them nonetheless, and, if they refuse, he said Friday that he'll go around them by contacting “mayors and county executives to get local masking requirements in place nationwide.”

Biden has offered a more cohesive plan for other major challenges facing the U.S. He's proposed, for instance, spending $2 trillion to combat climate change by boosting investment in clean energy and stopping all climate-damaging emissions from the U.S. economy by 2050.

Such an approach may be hard to replicate, though, against a pandemic that is rapidly changing.

In devising its pandemic-fighting plans, Biden’s campaign consulted with experts including Vivek Murthy, who served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, and David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, along with members of Congress, governors, mayors and other local officials — some of them Republican.

But Biden hasn’t said whether he’d endorse large-scale shutdowns of the nation’s economy, if things get drastically worse, like much of the country did in March. His team hasn’t offered details on its timeline for bringing the virus under control or on what success would look like, but has vowed to combat the pandemic in a way the Trump administration has failed to do.

“I think we have to make it work,” said Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, who noted that the former vice president has conceded that the task “isn't going to be easy or happen overnight.”

“But it is something that he feels confident that the administration, with leadership that is not waving a white flag like President Trump, can, in partnership with the American people, take control of this virus and get our lives back,” Feldman said.

At the start of the pandemic, Biden and other Democrats criticized Trump for not more quickly moving to use the Defense Production Act to step up national production of ventilators and other medical and protective equipment. While the Trump administration later employed the measure in some cases, Biden promises as president to use it more frequently, including to encourage banks to extend loans to small businesses hurt by the virus.

The Biden campaign also stresses that he will make a point of empowering career public health experts and “listening to the science.” Kavita Patel, a physician and health policy expert who worked in Obama’s White House, said that will be instrumental in making the governmental response to the pandemic more effective.

“Do not discount what it means for the morale to put credible and collaborative leadership at these agencies,” she said.

Patel added that, even if Congress can't approve emergency relief by the end of January — just 11 days after Biden would be inaugurated — the new president could still use the Office of Management and Budget to free up funds immediately, while taking unilateral steps like tapping federal stockpiles for urgently needed supplies.

“I am optimistic that he could do some things that would put a dent in this,” she said, noting that efforts “being done piecemeal and patchwork in different parts of the country, you could just see Biden actually federalizing completely.”

None of that will mean stopping the virus cold, though.

“Even strategy and a great set of ideas,” Patel said, "can’t take it from, say, 100,000 cases a day down to 10,000 immediately.”