During last week’s vice presidential debate, moderator Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, asked Vice President Mike Pence about the U.S. COVID-19 death toll. Pence replied by touting the Trump administration’s actions to combat the pandemic, such as restrictions on travel from China, steps to expand testing and efforts to accelerate the production of a vaccine.
Pence also took a jab at Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, a strong critic of the Trump pandemic response. “The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way,” said Pence. “And, quite frankly, when I look at their plan,” he added, “it looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”
(Pence’s gibe about plagiarism is likely a reference to Biden copying phrases from a British politician’s speeches during his first run for president in 1987, an issue that caused him to drop out of the race. In 2019, the Biden campaign acknowledged it had inadvertently lifted language in its climate and education plans without attributing the sources.)
Because COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, with nearly 8 million cases and upward of 215,000 deaths, we decided to examine both the Trump and Biden plans to curb the pandemic and investigate whether Pence was on target in his charge that the Biden plan is rooted in Trump’s ideas.
We reached out to both presidential campaigns for their candidates’ COVID-19 plans. The Trump campaign did not respond to our request, but we looked at a campaign website timeline of administration actions on COVID-19, as well as a coronavirus fact sheet from the White House. The Biden campaign sent us a link to Biden’s COVID-19 plan.
At first glance, there are obvious similarities. Both declare goals like vaccine development and expanding public availability of COVID-19 tests.
“Most pandemic response plans should be at their core fairly similar, if they’re well executed,” said Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening the U.S. health care supply chain.
But public health experts also pointed to significant philosophical differences in how the plans are put into action.
“You ought to think about it as two groups of people trying to make a car,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “They have to have four wheels, probably have to have a bumper, have some doors,” he said. It is how you build the car from that point forward that determines what the end product looks like.
What Trump Has Done
As Pence pointed out, the Trump administration has focused its efforts to combat COVID-19 along a couple of lines.
The administration formed the White House coronavirus task force in January and issued travel restrictions for some people traveling from China and other countries in February. Federal social distancing guidelines were issued in March and expired on April 30. The administration launched Operation Warp Speed in April, with the goal of producing and delivering 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in January 2021. A more detailed logistics plan to distribute a vaccine was issued later. Trump activated the Defense Production Act for certain protective equipment and ventilators. His administration also has talked about efforts to expand COVID-19 testing in partnership with the private sector, as well as initiatives to help cover costs for COVID-19 treatments and make tests free of charge.
Importantly, the administration also shifted significant decision-making responsibility to states, leaving the development of testing plans, procurement of personal protective equipment and decrees on stay-at-home orders and mask mandates to the discretion of the governor or local governments. Despite that, Trump still urged states to reopen beginning in May, though in many areas cases of COVID-19 remained high.
What Biden Proposes to Do
Biden’s plan would set out strong national standards for testing, contact tracing and social distancing — words that echo the Trump plan. It proposes working with states on mask mandates, establishing a “supply commander” in charge of shoring up PPE, aggressively using the Defense Production Act and accelerating vaccine development.
It also outlines plans to extend more fiscal relief, provide enhanced health insurance coverage, eliminate cost sharing for COVID treatments, reestablish a team on the National Security Council to address pandemic response and to maintain membership inthe World Health Organization. Trump announced earlier this summer that the U.S. would begin procedures to withdraw from the WHO, effective as of July 6, 2021.
Biden has said he would follow scientific advice if indicators pointed to a need to dial up social distancing guidelines in light of another wave of COVID-19 cases.
What’s the Same, What’s Different
Dr. Rachel Vreeman, director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, noted in an email that a key likeness is that the two plans “sometimes used similar words, such as testing, PPE and vaccines.”
But “the overall philosophy from the start, from the White House and from Trump, has been to let states and local governments deal with this problem,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at KFF. “Biden would have a much more forceful role for the federal government in setting strategy and guidelines in regards to the public health response.” (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
Even Pence pointed out this philosophical difference during the debate, saying that Democrats want to exert government control while Trump and Republicans left health choices up to individual Americans.
Vreeman and others pointed to another contrast — that the Trump administration has yet to issue a comprehensive COVID-19 response plan.
“What plan? I would really love it if someone could show me a plan. A press release is not a plan,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University.
Wen is right that the Trump administration has not issued a detailed plan, such as Biden’s document. The Trump administration has, however, offered a road map for how vaccines would be distributed.
Behavior Matters, Too
Another major distinction emerged in the way the candidates have communicated the threat of the coronavirus to the public and reacted to public health guidelines, such as those issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During most public outings and campaign rallies, Trump has chosen not to wear a mask — even after he tested positive and was treated for COVID-19. He has been known to mock others, including reporters and Biden, for wearing masks. And, Trump and members of his administration have not adhered to social distancing guidelines at official events. The White House indoor reception and outdoor Rose Garden event held to mark the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court – at each one, few attendees followed these precautions – have been associated with the transmission of at least 11 cases of coronavirus, according to a website tracking the cases from public reports. There are also multiple reported cases among White House and Trump campaign staff members.
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has downplayed the threat of COVID-19, touted unproven treatments for the disease such as bleach, hydroxychloroquine or UV light, questioned the effectiveness of face masks and criticized or contradicted public health officials’ statements about the pandemic.
In comparison, Biden has worn masks during his public campaign events and has encouraged Americans to do so as well. His events strictly adhere to public health guidelines, including wearing masks, social distancing and limiting the number of attendees.
The two candidates’ approaches to listening to scientists are also different.
“Biden has said he is going to look at science and value the best scientists,” said Benjamin. “The Trump administration has not walked the talk; they have said one thing and done something else. If you go on the Trump administration website, you see guidelines that they didn’t follow themselves.”
In the end, the Biden campaign has the distinction of being able to learn from the Trump administration’s early missteps, said the experts.
There’s also a reality check: if Biden wins and attempts to implement his COVID-19 plan, it’s important to consider that no matter how well thought out it looks on paper, he may not be able to accomplish everything.
“There’s a lot of words in this plan,” said Joseph Antos, a resident scholar in health care policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “But until you’re in the job, a lot of this doesn’t really matter.”
Pence claimed the Biden plan to address COVID-19 was similar to the Trump administration’s plan “every step of the way.”
A cursory, side-by-side look at the Trump administration’s COVID-19 actions — no actual comprehensive plan has been released — and the Biden plan indicates some big picture overlap on securing a vaccine and ramping up testing. But that’s where the similarities end.
Biden’s plan includes proposed actions the Trump administration has not pursued. It also is focused on federal rather than state authority, a significant distinction Pence himself pointed out during the debate.
Additionally, the candidates’ behaviors toward COVID-19 and views on science have been diametrically opposed, with Trump eschewing the use of face masks and social distancing, and Biden closely adhering to both.
Pence’s statement ignores critical facts and realities, making it inaccurate and ridiculous.
We rate it Pants On Fire.