The COVID-19 Pandemic is the greatest public health challenge faced by the United States since the Spanish Flu ravaged the country in multiple waves beginning in 1918.
Given the historic scale of this crisis, The Informed Vermonter thought it would be insightful to take a detailed look at our government’s response as the pandemic spread throughout the world and the country. Many of the actions being taken now are likely to have consequences well into the future.
In the next series of articles, the actions of both the federal government and State of Vermont to address the COVID-19 pandemic will be reviewed in detail. Both legislative actions and executive orders will be covered. Federal Reserve Bank actions will also be discussed. As always, The Informed Vermonter will try to identify and classify all the related costs and examine the resulting financial impact of the crisis on the economy and government budgets.
State governments and the federal government have very different powers and resources within our political system. Broadly speaking, healthcare is largely managed by state governments, with the federal government providing substantial funding via Medicare and Medicaid. Also, crisis management is largely a state government responsibility, with the federal government providing emergency funding, coordination and assistance through agencies such as FEMA. Adding to the complexity are local governments, which tend to have control of much of the front line emergency response infrastructure in the country, including police, ambulance service, fire departments and community hospitals.
It is rare for the USA to face an emergency that goes beyond only a handful of states. A very bad hurricane, for example, may affect four to five states. COVID-19 is a true national emergency affecting all 50 states at exactly the same time.
Given our highly fragmented government structure, the response to the pandemic has varied widely from one state to the next and one major city to the next. The COVID-19 virus knows nothing about our state and local boundaries and is happy to go anywhere a human carrier chooses to take it.
When it comes to crisis management, the strong local knowledge held by state and local entities is clearly critical. It seems intuitive that much of the response to CoviD-19 should be managed better at the state and local level than by any national centralized power. However, this is a true national crisis and there is clearly a role for strong direction and coordination from Washington.
With that thought in mind, this series of articles will begin with a review of the federal government’s response.
To help readers assess for themselves the timing of the federal government’s response, a brief summary of the COVID-19 timeline is provided below.
On December 31, 2019, Wuhan, China reported a cluster of pneumonia cases to the World Health Organization. On January 12, the Government of China published the genetic sequence of COVID-19 for the global community. The next day, the first case outside of China was reported in Thailand. On January 30, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. There were cases in 18 countries at this time. On February 1, there were 8 COVID-19 cases in the USA. On March 12, COVID-19 was officially classified as a global pandemic. As of May 1, over 65,000 thousand people had died from COVID-19 in the USA.
A Crisis Characterized By Uncertainty
COVID-19 is a new virus. There is no vaccine and no effective drug treatment now available. In the short time we have been exposed to this new virus, we have learned that it’s highly contagious, but we still don’t know all the means of spreading the infection. Person-to-person airborne transmission is certainly the biggest problem. We have also learned that it is highly lethal, particularly for elderly people with other health issues. However, people of all ages, sexes and races are dying from COVID-19. There also appears to be a risk of long term health consequences for those that survive.
While there is a major US and global effort underway to understand the virus, develop a vaccine and effective therapeutics, nothing is certain. It is important to recognize that it is within this knowledge vacuum that our elected representatives are now operating.
Federal Legislative Actions
Thus far, there have been four major legislative acts passed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. A fifth is now in process. The first, on March 6, 2020, was the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. The Second, passed into law on March 18, 2020, was the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The most important legislation, both in terms of scope and cost, is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which become law on March 27, 2020. The last, which become law on April 24,2020, was the Paycheck Protection Program and Healthcare Enhancement Act. This last Act basically added more money to programs developed in the prior legislation.
The amount of money being authorised, the intended use of the money and the impact on the federal budget deficit by these COVID-19 actions is unprecedented in US history.
Each of these major legislative acts will be reviewed in subsequent articles, beginning with the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.