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President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on big plans for health care, many of which would face an uphill road if the U.S. Senate remains in Republican hands.
But one of the first contributions Biden will make to America's health also will be one of the most important, experts said -- de-politicizing and unifying the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think you have in this person, Joe Biden, a person who believes in science and is listening to the experts in the scientific community," said Vivian Riefberg, a professor with the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.
By promoting faith in science and the need for shared sacrifice, Biden aims to bring the country together as it endures a COVID surge during what looks to be a hard winter.
"I think it will start with a much more concerted effort to promote mask wearing, to promote social distancing, not necessarily with some big centralized lockdown," Riefberg said. "A push for making the mask not political, which it shouldn't be. Talking to us about what is needed to be done in each and every community."
Wearing a mask became a political statement under President Donald Trump, who famously attacked Biden for taking this basic precaution. Trump also regularly took potshots at Democratic governors who tried to contain the spread of COVID-19 in their states through lockdowns.
Experts expect Biden to promote a more vigorous federal response to the pandemic by empowering public health agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Marianne Udow-Phillips, founding executive director of the Center for Health and Research Transformation at the University of Michigan.
"I think he would certainly strengthen the role of public health and the voice of public health in the response to the pandemic," she said. "Hopefully, we'd have more consistent messages coming from an administration, stronger messaging from the Centers for Disease Control and more support for the positions and the information that's coming from epidemiologists."
The pandemic response under Trump has also suffered from a lack of federal coordination, with states vying with one another to obtain needed supplies for testing and protection.
Biden is expected to take a much more active role in steering resources where they are most needed, and using federal power to require industry to produce resources that are in short supply, Riefberg said.
Biden's campaign website calls for creating a Pandemic Testing Board similar to the World War II-era War Production Board under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It would guide the industrial response to COVID by requiring factories to churn out testing supplies and protective equipment.
"It will be, 'let's have a much more collective coordinated effort,' [one] that doesn't pit one part of the government against another," Riefberg said. "I also think he's more willing to make use of federal power, whether it's the [War] Production Act or other elements."
Biden's website also promises to provide clear, consistent and evidence-based nationwide guidance for how communities should navigate the pandemic. That includes funding to help small businesses and local governments deal with COVID-related financial stresses.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have vaccines that appear to be highly effective, and Biden has called for the presidential transition process to begin in part so there will be no delays in getting the vaccines out to the public.
"It may not be rushed quite as fast under Biden than it is under Trump, but they'll both be looking to get vaccines out as quickly as possible," said Gerard Anderson, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
The Biden-Harris campaign website has more details on COVID-19 response plans.
SOURCES: Vivian Riefberg, MBA, professor, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; Marianne Udow-Phillips, MHSA, founding exercutive director, Center for Health and Research Transformation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Gerard Anderson, PhD, professor, health policy and management, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore
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