Joe Biden has unveiled a $1.9tn stimulus package proposal that aims to bring new urgency to the nation’s coronavirus vaccination campaign and usher in another round of economic relief for struggling Americans.
The US is facing its deadliest period of the pandemic so far. Detailing the plan in a speech on Thursday evening, Biden described the moment as “a crisis of deep human suffering”.
“There’s no time to waste,” Biden said. “We have to act and we have to act now.”
Details of the aid package had been released by Biden’s transition team earlier on Thursday. They include $160bn in funding for vaccination and testing and other health programs; $1tn in relief to families, via direct payments and unemployment insurance; $440bn for aid to and businesses and communities; and $350bn for state, local and tribal governments.
Stimulus payment checks would be issued for $1,400 – topping up the $600 checks issued under the last congressional stimulus legislation. Supplemental unemployment insurance would also increase to $400 a week from $300 a week and would be extended to September.
“During this pandemic, millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, have lost the dignity and respect that comes with a job and a paycheck,” Biden said on Thursday, noting that many faced eviction and long lines at food banks. “There is real pain overwhelming the real economy.”
Biden campaigned last year on a promise to take the pandemic more seriously than Donald Trump has, and the package aims to put that pledge into action with an influx of resources for the coronavirus response and economic recovery.
The plan comes as a divided nation remains caught in the grip of the pandemic’s most dangerous wave yet. So far, more than 385,000 have died in the US.
And government numbers out on Thursday showed a jump in weekly unemployment claims, to 965,000, a sign that rising infections are forcing businesses to cut back and lay off workers.
The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said the Biden Covid-19 package will be the first order of business this year. Democrats expect it will also include more aid for unemployed workers as well as money for state efforts to contain the pandemic and sustain basic services.
Two highly effective vaccines are already being distributed in the US, and more are on the way. Yet a month after the first shots were given, the nation’s vaccination campaign is off to a slow start with about 10.3 million people getting the first of two shots, although more than 29m doses have been delivered.
Biden aims to speed that up by delivering more vaccine and working closely with states and local communities. The Trump administration provided the vaccine to states and set guidelines for who should get priority for shots, but largely left it up to state and local officials to organize their vaccination campaigns.
Biden has set a goal of administering 100m shots in his first 100 days. The pace of vaccination is approaching 1m shots a day, but 1.8m a day would be needed to reach widespread or “herd” immunity by the summer, according to a recent estimate by the American Hospital Association.
Biden has previously announced his plans for other public health measures, such as calling for all Americans to wear masks during his first 100 days in office.
Trump’s leadership during the pandemic has been erratic. He backed “Operation Warp Speed” to quickly develop vaccines and treatments, but also picked fights with leading government scientists like Dr Anthony Fauci and his own appointees at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden has pledged to take his lead from science, and has named Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as his top medical adviser. He has tapped businessman Jeff Zients, who has a reputation for successfully tackling complex missions, to coordinate the government’s coronavirus response. He has also selected the Yale medicine professor Dr Marcella Nunez-Smith, to head an effort to ensure equity and fairness for racial and ethnic minorities in access to vaccines and treatments.
But he will need more than top-résumé talent, experts say. It is still unclear how the new administration will address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, with many Americans, including a worryingly high percentage of healthcare workers, saying they are wary of getting a shot.
Next Wednesday, when Biden will be sworn in as president, marks the first anniversary of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the United States.