Health and Wellness

Physician and policy expert: What Biden could do on Day 1 to fight the pandemic if he wins the election

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden puts his mask back on after delivering remarks following a coronavirus briefing with health experts at the Hotel DuPont on August 13, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

President Donald Trump been widely criticized for his response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The United States currently has the most Covid-19 cases in world, with an average of more than 51,100 new Covid-19 cases per day.

And it is a possible weak spot in his campaign for a second term as president: Recent polls have Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden ahead of Trump.

While no one knows for sure where the pandemic will be by January 2021 (a vaccine may not be widely available by then, though there likely could be advancements in diagnostic testing, as well as therapeutic treatments), if Biden does win the election, what could he do immediately to help control the pandemic?

During a recent interview on the podcast "In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt," Dr. Kavita Patel outlined steps that Biden could take on the first day of his presidency. Patel is a physician and fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as director of policy for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement under Obama, and is a policy advisor for Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

"Day one, [Biden's team has] to be able to come in and have, ready for the president, executive orders that can just go," Patel said on the podcast, which aired on August 17.

In a pandemic, one of the fastest ways to enact change is through executive orders, Patel said. Biden will need to have a few executive orders already packaged and reviewed so he can quickly sign them and they can be put into action as soon as he takes office, she said. 

For example, if president, Biden could sign executive orders Day 1 aimed at a testing strategy for Covid-19, Patel said.

Expanding the testing capacity for Covid-19 is crucial for public health officials to identify where the spread is taking place as well as treat and isolate individuals who have the virus. Furthermore, testing brings us one step closer to eventually reopen the economy and send people back to work and school. 

Trump has said that the U.S. has "the best testing in the world." But experts, including White House advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said for months that the U.S. needs to do more. And House Democrats recently criticized Trump for failing to produce "an adequate" national testing strategy, according to a report released by the Democratic chairmen of at least a half dozen House committees.

Access to healthcare is another area where Biden could step in immediately. Come Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021, the open enrollment period for healthcare coverage will have ended. The next open enrollment period for 2021 coverage runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, 2020.

But Patel said Biden could sign an executive order that creates a special enrollment period for people who have been impacted by the pandemic to get healthcare coverage. (Many states extended state-run health insurance enrollment periods this past spring to allow more people to get healthcare coverage during the pandemic.)

"Wouldn't it be amazing if Day 1, President Biden would be able to say, 'We're going to open the marketplace up'?" Patel said. "Now, I know that would that would be difficult with insurers, but it's something that certainly he can look into. And why not?"

Other immediate executive orders could ramp up manufacturing products such as N95 masks and testing materials through the Defense Production Act, said Patel, which could be critical. 

The DPA is a wartime law that was passed in 1950 and gives presidents authority "to expedite and expand the supply of resources from the US industrial base to support military, energy, space and homeland security programs," according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While Trump has invoked the DPA to procure Covid-19 test kits, ventilators and N95 masks (and to fight price-gouging), he never actually "[pulled] the trigger on manufacturing," Patel said.

It's something Biden addresses on his campaign website. He has as outlined steps that he would take to rebuild U.S. supply chains and avoid shortages, adding that "the Trump administration is still dragging its feet on using the DPA to produce urgently-needed supplies."

Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, called the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic "a failure," in a July 28 press release. "Its inaction when it comes to fully implementing the Defense Production Act and preparing our country's stockpile of protective equipment and supplies, including masks, has been disastrous and deadly."

"I've used the DPA more comprehensively than any President in history," Trump said in a White House press briefing on Aug. 14. Responding to criticism that he hasn't used the DPA sufficiently, he said, "we have used it a lot, where necessary." Since March, the White House says Trump has used the DPA or "DPA-related actions" a total of 78 times, according to an August report from the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. 

"As President, Biden will use the DPA to its fullest extent to rebuild domestic manufacturing capacity in critical supply chains," according to Biden's campaign website.

There is however, something Biden likely could not do, according to Patel: mandate wearing masks, which comes with legal challenges. 

(Last week, Biden said governors should mandate mandatory mask wearing, citing research that suggests wearing a mask could prevent over 40,000 deaths in the coming three months. "It's not about your rights. It's about your responsibilities as an American," Biden said during a press briefing Aug. 13.)

However, Patel said that an "incredible distribution program" that puts free masks in "every place that a consumer touches" would be effective. 

Harris recently signed onto a bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders that would use the DPA to produce and distribute free face masks to all Americans.

The White House and a spokesperson for Joe Biden's campaign did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

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