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'At War With This Virus' — Biden Lays Out His COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plan

President-elect Joe Biden has released a $1.9 trillion proposal to help control the pandemic and bring economic relief to Americans.
Matt Slocum
President-elect Joe Biden has released a $1.9 trillion proposal to help control the pandemic and bring economic relief to Americans.

Updated 4:25 p.m. ET

President-elect Joe Biden's sweeping American Rescue Plan includes ambitious proposals to bring the pandemic under control. Biden is sharing details of the part of his plan focused on the vaccination rollout Friday afternoon.

In the plan, Biden promises to tackle the pandemic with "the full strength of the federal government."

Public health experts are broadly supportive of his approach but say Biden's calls for a speedy bipartisan deal mean that parts of the plan will likely be scaled back.

In a speech Friday afternoon, Biden laid out his five-part plan for how to speed up the vaccination campaign: Open up vaccine eligibility to more people, create more vaccination sites, increase vaccine supply, hire a vaccination workforce, and launch a large-scale public education campaign.

Calling for patriotism and for Americans to do their part to ending the pandemic by wearing masks, he said, "We're in a war with this virus."

The first step in the plan, he said, is to "immediately work with states to open up vaccinations to more priority groups."

As part of his proposed package, he calls for hundreds of billions of spending for this national vaccination program as well as other public health measures such as testing and contact tracing; new jobs for public health workers; and expanded U.S. manufacturing for protective gear.

"This is the time for big, ambitious goals," says Lindsay Wiley, director of the health law and policy program at American University, "It's the right place to start."

The plan is ambitious not just in its spending goals but also in its intent to mitigate the pandemic's rippling effects, says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

"There's funding here to empower people to be able to stay home [if they're sick], to get kids back in the school. There's money here to support the economy, to get workers back to work. When you couple that with these health interventions [such as testing and contact tracing], this is really a way forward," Benjamin says.

Biden assumes control next week of a country facing a raging pandemic that is killing nearly 3,500 people every day on average, with the risk of potentially faster-spreading new virus strains on the horizon.

His plan emphasizes the need to jump-start a slow vaccine rollout that he called "a dismal failure." The COVID-19 vaccination campaign has reached just 3% of the U.S. population so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The more people we vaccinate, the faster we do it, the sooner we can save lives and put this pandemic behind us and get back to our lives and our loved ones — and the sooner we can rescue and rebuild the American economy," Biden said, promising to release additional details of his plan to speed up vaccine distribution on Friday.

Biden's proposed plan funds 100,000 new community health workers, creating a workforce for tasks such as vaccine outreach and contact tracing that could transform public health in the U.S., Wiley says: "If we can engage a new, young energetic workforce ... it could really put public health practice, public health infrastructure on good footing for a generation to come, like we saw with the Public Works Administration for past generations."

The plan shows that Biden intends to take firm leadership of the pandemic response, health experts say.

"[He's saying] here's my plan for distribution. Here's my plan for vaccination," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the nonprofit American Action Forum, a conservative think tank: "If he takes ownership of this in a way that his predecessor never did, that can really raise the chances of it being successful." He adds that he thinks there's going to be consensus in Congress around funding vaccine distribution and other measures to combat the virus.

As it stands, the proposed rescue package would be the second largest in history, after the $2 trillion CARES Act passed in March. Health care experts expect it to be pared down as it gets debated in Congress.

"It's an opening bid on what is necessary in the spring and early summer of 2021 to help people survive the financial fallout of the virus, but more importantly, to combat the ravages of the virus," Holtz-Eakin says.

Holtz-Eakin lauds Biden's intent to move with "urgency and bipartisanship" to pass his American Rescue Plan — and says that also means compromises are coming. He anticipates pushback on measures such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and funding for state and local governments.

"There is a case to be made for this. How big will always be in the eye of the beholder," Holtz-Eakin says, "In the end, some [parts of the proposal] will drop out, some of it will get scaled back."

Biden described the American Rescue Plan as a way to "tackle the pandemic and get direct financial assistance and relief to Americans who need it the most." He pledged to unveil a second plan, next month, to help the American economy recover through investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, research and skills training so American industry can "compete and win in the global economy of the coming years."

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Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
Carmel Wroth is a senior health editor for NPR's Science Desk, where she guides digital strategy for the health team and conceives and edits digital-first, enterprise stories and packages.