President-Elect Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled a massive new COVID-19 attack plan that comes closer than ever before to aligning the federal pandemic response with that of the Golden State.
In fact, for Californians, Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” may seem a little like déjà vu. The strategy, which includes more stimulus checks, a push to ramp up vaccine distribution, funding to help schools reopen and extended eviction protections mirrors the steps California’s leadership is taking.
On one hand, California’s experience can serve as a cautionary tale — despite cracking down early and hard on the virus, the state is seeing its case and death counts explode this winter, while its hospitals are overwhelmed. But on the other hand, experts within the state say it will be a relief to have federal guidance that’s more in step with California’s.
“The symbolism of just talking about it is important, because (President) Trump has in recent days gone quiet about everything except his complaints about the election,” said Claremont McKenna College politics professor Jack Pitney, a former Republican operative who left the party after Donald Trump was elected. “It sends a message down the line of government that this is an actual priority. And that’s not the message that’s been sent in the past couple of months.”
Biden began Thursday’s address with a grim nod to the Bay Area by remembering Patricia Dowd — the 57-year-old San Jose woman who died Feb. 6, becoming the country’s first known coronavirus fatality. Fast-forward one year, and more than 500 Californians have died on average every day over the past week. Many Bay Area intensive-care units are at or near capacity as COVID-infected patients flood hospitals.
And the vaccine rollout, which Biden called a “dismal failure,” is going worse in California than in most of the rest of the country. The state had vaccinated just 2.5% of its population as of Thursday. Only six other states — Mississippi, Arizona, Idaho, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama — have done worse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The federal government has mostly left states to fend for themselves when it comes to vaccine distribution. There have been delays and communication breakdowns resulting in California agencies left in the dark, unsure when their next shipments of vaccines will arrive, said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF.
“The difference between vaccines and vaccinations is quite stark,” she said. “And what we’re seeing is these vaccines are not really getting into the arms of people in the form of vaccinations.”
Biden’s plan, which would put about $20 billion toward vaccination efforts, could help. The president-elect aims to administer 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days in office — a dramatic increase from the 11 million vaccines doled out so far.
He painted a grim picture of the havoc the pandemic is wreaking on the country, using language that tracks much more closely with fellow Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rhetoric than with Trump’s.
“The crisis of deep human suffering is in plain sight and there’s no time to waste,” Biden said. “We have to act, and we have to act now.”
Experts say Biden’s message reaffirming the seriousness of the crisis may help with one of California’s most pressing issues — pandemic fatigue. Biden’s call to action could help convince Californians sick of sacrificing to continue wearing masks and social distancing for a bit longer, Bibbins-Domingo said.
For Bibbins-Domingo, another top priority is researching new extra-contagious strains of coronavirus — one of which already has infected Californians. Biden’s plan would boost funding for genetic sequencing to help track new virus strains.
The plan also would funnel about $130 billion into making schools safe to reopen — another high-priority agenda item for Newsom. The governor late last month announced a $2 billion Safe Schools for All Plan aimed at getting students behind desks once again.
Biden’s plan also calls on legislators to extend the national eviction moratorium, currently set to expire Jan. 31, until Sept. 30. Newsom has made similar pleas, and California lawmakers have proposed measures to extend eviction protections.
Biden proposed $1,400 stimulus checks, $25 billion in rental assistance, and $5 billion for homeless Americans and residents at risk of losing their housing. In California, which now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, that money would bring welcome relief.
“Californians are in dire need arguably, and in even more dire need than people in other parts of the country,” Pitney said. “So it’s a big deal.”