Editor's note: This article is the second in a series looking at what a change in the presidency might mean for an array of topics that affects Utah. Be sure to read part one.
SALT LAKE CITY — There haven't been many pandemics — at least to the scale of COVID-19 — in modern U.S. history; and a shift in the Oval Office didn't happen during the middle of wide-scale pandemics like ones in 1918 and 1890.
Of all the issues that a new administration will handle, the COVID-19 response is the only one that's temporary but could have long-lasting repercussions.
In the weeks ahead of Inauguration Day, President-elect Joe Biden is already working to show that his response will be different — and that expectations for a return to normalcy won't be as quick as perhaps previously believed or currently desired. In a short briefing of his COVID-19 strategy Tuesday, Biden asserted he is hopeful that life could start to return to normal in 2021 but also warned that it won't be at the start of the new year.
"The next few weeks and months are going to be very, a very tough period for our nation," he said. "Maybe the toughest during this entire pandemic. I know it's hard to hear but it's the truth. … We're going to get through this. Better days are coming, but it's going to take all the grit and determination we have as Americans to get it done."
In his 12-minute speech, Biden outlined his plan that gives an indication of what will be different come Jan. 20.
Masks and testing
Let's start with masks since it's clear that won't go away, at least in the first months of the Biden presidency, even with the rollout of the vaccine. The completion of herd immunity through vaccinations is still many months away, at least. There's a likelihood that infection will spread from the holiday season, which concludes after this weekend.
Biden said the country's COVID-19 situation may not improve until "well into" March given delays in hospitalizations and deaths after a new case is discovered. Given this, the new administration appears poised to enact a mask mandate in areas where it can — for the first 100 days at least. It's one of the biggest splits from the Trump Administration when it comes to COVID-19 response plans.
Biden said his initial mandate would include federal workers, in federal facilities and in interstate travel. That means requirements for passengers on all airlines, passenger train services and Greyhound Bus Lines. He also plans to ensure states and local governments to do the same.
"It's not a political statement, it's a patriotic duty. … Masking has been a divisive issue in this country, but COVID is a killer in red states and blue states alike," he said. "So I encourage you all to wear a mask. Encourage your family and friends to do the same. It's one of the easiest things we can do that can make a huge difference to save lives."
Gov. Gary Herbert issued a mask mandate in November after it was largely up to counties to approve mandates. Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, who will be sworn in next week, tweeted in November that he promised to "work with (Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris) to benefit the people of Utah." KSL.com reached out to Cox's administration Wednesday morning to see if Cox would continue a statewide mandate but did not receive a response by press time.
Biden added that funding to scale up testing is another priority of his, arguing that the U.S. still doesn't have enough testing capabilities nearly one year into the pandemic.
Vaccine distribution is already underway. A little more than 20,000 Utahns have received the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines since Dec. 15, according to Utah Department of Health data released Tuesday.
State officials had originally said they expected to receive about 154,000 vaccine doses by the end of the year. The health department reported on Tuesday that a little over 100,000 vaccine doses have been shipped to the state, although the figure from the health department doesn't indicate how many doses have arrived. It's worth pointing out that those who have already received the vaccine will begin their second round of vaccinations beginning next week, which will factor into the supply.
Less-than-expected vaccines received and administered are being reported elsewhere. The federal government had anticipated back in November that about 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of the year, according to Politico. As of Monday, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported 2.1 million Americans were vaccinated and close to 11.5 million vaccine doses had been distributed — although there is a few days of lag between state and federal vaccine reports.
Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir said in an interview with NBC News Tuesday that he expected the distribution figure will rise to 15.6 million vaccine doses by the end of this week and close to 20 million by next week. He acknowledged the U.S. will fall short of the original target but administering of vaccines will "ramp up" once the holiday season ends.
Giroir's remarks came as the news outlet reported it could take up to 10 years for the country to reach the federal goal of 80% immunization based on the current rate of vaccinations. Biden, on Tuesday, added that he didn't believe COVID-19 vaccines were on the move fast enough.
"If it continues to move at the pace it is now, it's going to take years, not months to vaccinate the American people," he said.
Noting that vaccination would take "more time than anyone would like," the incoming president once again pushed his goal of 100 million vaccine shots to be administered in his first 100 days. This lofty goal, he said, would likely require extra help, such as congressional funding and to speed up the process five to six times the current rate.
It's unclear still if that will be done; for his part, Biden explained some avenues that could help it happen. Much like President Donald Trump did, Biden said he will invoke the Defense Production Act to speed up vaccine manufacturing processes once he's in office. This would order private businesses to accelerate the production of vaccine materials and protective gear.
He added that he and Harris have been in contact with various state and local government officials across party lines to find ways to quicken the distribution of the vaccine. In addition, his administration plans to launch a public education campaign to try and show the safety of the vaccine.
Also like the previous administration, the goal is to make the vaccine "free of charge."
"We're going to work to set up vaccination sites and send mobile units to hard-to-reach communities," Biden said. "We also know there's vaccination hesitancy in many communities, especially Black, Latino and Native American communities, who have not always been treated with the dignity and honesty they deserve by the federal government and scientific community throughout our history."
The last part of Biden's 100-day COVID-19 plan centers on schools — although it's a topic that really doesn't change much for Utah. The Salt Lake City School District is the last remaining holdout in the return to in-person learning; that could end in the coming weeks.
Trump was vocal about keeping schools open when the new school year came around. Biden said he would focus his first 100 days to work to make sure at least K-8 schools reopened but also said that would require some additional spending for things like COVID-19 testing, protective equipment, additional cleaning services, proper ventilation systems, as well as transportation to help students properly socially distance themselves on the way to school.
"We can only do that if Congress provides the necessary funding so we get schools, districts, communities and states the resources they need for the so many things that aren't there already on a tight budget," he said, adding that it would take an additional "tens of billions of dollars" to make it happen.
COVID-19 relief spending
Trump this week signed a combined $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief and omnibus spending package that included a $600 stimulus check for Americans. One of the few things Trump and Biden seemed to agree on most was to raise the amount every American received from that second stimulus check from $600 to $2,000.
The measure passed the Democratic-led House of Representatives, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring it to a Senate vote. The $600 checks are already in the process of being distributed, according to the U.S. Treasury.
Biden called the move "a step in the right direction" on Tuesday, but it was clear the topic didn't end this week. Citing needs for testing and to help schools, the president-elect said he plans to propose a "COVID action package" in early 2021 that goes beyond the $2.3 trillion package. He also hinted at proposing more stimulus relief, calling the $600 stimulus checks a "down payment."
The incoming administration will seek to have Congress to "act on it quickly" once the final plan is revealed. Given that the fate of the final two Senate seats still aren't known, it's unclear what the communication will look like between Biden and Congress in a few weeks.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mentioned that a Utah mask mandate was briefly in place. This story has been corrected to state the mask mandate is, in fact, still in place.