WASHINGTON — President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden presented starkly different visions for the country’s recovery from Covid-19 at the final presidential debate Thursday, with Biden warning of a “dark winter” and Trump downplaying the threat of the virus and urging Americans to return to work and to school.
In the first segment of the debate, Trump doubled down on his misleading assessment that the U.S. is “rounding the turn” on Covid-19, insisting “it will go away.” The U.S. reported over 72,000 new coronavirus cases and over 1,000 deaths on Thursday. Biden, meanwhile, attacked Trump’s “ineptitude,” urging increased use of masks and adherence to social distancing guidelines.
The debate represented the last face-to-face encounter between the candidates in an election defined by the pandemic, in which 220,000 Americans have died to date. And as infections, hospitalizations, and deaths spike across the country, it marked a final opportunity for Trump and Biden to argue they were best positioned to handle the country’s continued Covid-19 response.
Trump, as he has throughout the pandemic, largely glossed over the country’s death toll and painted an optimistic picture about the availability of Covid-19 vaccines. At one point, Trump pledged a vaccine would be approved “within weeks” but quickly amended his timetable, specifying he expected a vaccine approval by the end of 2020. While several drug companies are conducting or concluding late-stage clinical trials, none has submitted data to federal regulators seeking an emergency vaccine authorization.
Biden attempted to throw cold water on Trump’s boasts, warning Americans they likely wouldn’t have access to a Covid-19 for several months, if not longer.
“We’re about to go into a dark winter,” Biden said. “He has no clear plan, and there’s no prospect that a vaccine is going to be available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”
It was the first debate since Trump contracted Covid-19, spent three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and received a number of experimental treatments, including the antibody therapy being developed by the New York biotechnology company Regeneron. Another debate scheduled for Oct. 15 was scrapped — and morphed into dueling town halls — after Trump refused to appear remotely, insisting on an in-person debate less than two weeks after he first fell ill.
Following his apparent quick recovery, Trump urged Americans not to allow the pandemic to “dominate” their lives, citing his experience with Regeneron’s therapy. Such antibody treatments are still undergoing testing, and are not available to Americans outside the setting of a clinical trial or a compassionate use program.
The debate followed a week in which Trump attempted to mock his opponent by claiming Biden “wants to listen to Tony Fauci,” the U.S. government’s top infectious disease researcher with whom Trump has clashed throughout 2020.
Biden’s campaign eagerly issued a one-word Twitter response: “Yes.”
Biden, beyond unveiling plans for ambitious scale-ups of U.S. testing and contact tracing capacity, has stressed that he will empower government scientists and “choose science over fiction.”
Trump, meanwhile, has consistently undercut U.S. public health officials, including Stephen Hahn and Robert Redfield, respectively, the heads of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has pledged a vaccine will be available to Americans by Election Day; hyped dubious treatments including the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, UV rays, and disinfectant; and suggested that government scientists and drug companies are purposefully slowing vaccine development to hurt his reelection chances.
Trump has also flouted basic public health interventions like diagnostic testing, which he has argued misleadingly inflates case numbers, and social distancing — he has continued to hold in-person rallies throughout the country, even in states where Covid-19 cases are spiking.
In the wake of Trump’s vaccine rhetoric and Democrats’ subsequent criticism, the number of Americans who say they will seek a Covid-19 immunization once one becomes available has plummeted.
Even Democrats’ criticisms of Trump’s eager and often misleading vaccine rhetoric have become a campaign issue. In an Oct. 7 vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Vice President Mike Pence squared off on vaccine safety, with Harris reiterating she would not trust Trump’s word, alone, on vaccine safety.
Pence responded by exhorting her to “please stop undermining confidence in a vaccine.”