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October 16, 2020

Weekly line: The key health care questions in last night's dueling presidential town halls

Daily Briefing

    Last night, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden held dueling town halls on competing networks, after Trump declined to participate in the virtual debate proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. While viewers did not get to see both candidates on the same screen, the candidates did answer some questions on similar topics—and as we've seen throughout this presidential election, health care and the coronavirus epidemic were front and center.

    Up to Date: Your post-election digest

    Given the unusual nature of this week's "debate"—and the fact that they both aired at the same time—our team split the coverage, with Daily Briefing's Editor-in-Chief Heather Bell watching the Trump Town Hall, and Daily Briefing's Senior Editor Ashley Fuoco Antonelli watching the Biden Town Hall. Below we round up the biggest health care questions the candidates faced.

    Trump faces questions on coronavirus testing, the Affordable Care Act, and more.

    Trump's Town Hall, which aired on NBC, opened with some initial questions from Today show co-host Savannah Guthrie, the event's moderator. Guthrie invited Trump to share more details about his recent Covid-19 diagnosis.

    'Did you test the day of the debate?'

    Guthrie posed questions about when Trump was tested for the coronavirus several times, noting that the commission expected the presidential candidates to test negative the day of the debate before arriving. However, Trump did not answer the question directly, saying, "I don't know." When pressed again, Trump said, "Possibly I did, possibly I didn't." Trump said that he takes "a lot of tests," but he noted that they do not happen every single day.

    "It was only after the debate, like a period of time after the debate, that I said, that's interesting, and I tested positive," Trump said.

    When asked about the severity of his illness, Trump also provided limited information about his symptoms. He said, "I didn't feel good, I didn't feel strong. I had a little bit of a temperature." He added that based on advice from the White House doctors, he went to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was treated with Regeneron and remdesivir. "All I know is I felt good the following day, I felt really good," Trump said.

    'After contracting Covid-19 yourself, has your opinion changed on the importance of mask wearing?'

    This question was posed by an audience member, as well as earlier in the event by Guthrie. In each response, Trump indicated that his position on masks has not actually changed because he "was OK with the masks." He said, "I'm good with masks, I wear masks, I tell people to wear masks." However, the New York Times reports that Trump has "repeatedly mocked" Biden and others for wearing masks.

    When pressed on why he has been photographed at events while not wearing a mask—including at a potential super-spreader event at the White House the Saturday before he tested positive—Trump incorrectly cited a CDC study: "Just the other day they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it so ... that's what I heard and that's what I saw."

    The Associated Press reports that the findings, which were based on a small survey of 150 Covid-19 patients, stated 85% of respondents said they had worn a mask "often" or "always" during the time they likely became infected—not that, as Trump implied, 85% of all people who wear masks become ill. In addition, the study found the individuals in the survey were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant, where masks are taken off to eat, as a control group of uninfected people.

    'How are you going to get the United States back on track, both in terms of the economy and the pandemic?'

    This question came from an emergency room provider, who noted that hospitals are suffering financial hardships that are trickling down to workers via furloughs, pay cuts, and/or layoffs. Trump in response said he's expecting the United States to have a "phenomenal third-quarter," and expects to make that announcement on Nov. 1. Looking ahead, Trump said, "Our economy next year if we don't have someone who raises taxes …, our economy is going to be phenomenal."

    Regarding hospitals, Trump said, "We've sent billions and billions of dollars to the hospitals. In addition, hundreds of millions of masks and gowns and we went into the ventilator business, because this country was not equipped with ventilators. … But we're now making thousands of ventilators a month." Trump here was referring to actions taken under the Defense Production Act to compel additional manufacturers to produce ventilators to avoid a shortage. The United States has since made an excess amount of ventilators and, as Trump alluded to last night, has been helping to supply other countries.

    'What is your plan now in 2020 to make health care costs affordable for Americans like myself?'

    This question came from an audience member, who noted the rising costs of health care in recent years. Trump said he had eliminated the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) individual mandate penalty, but he said the law remains problematic. "The problem with Obamacare, it's not good," he said.

    He added that his administration is supporting the GOP-led lawsuit to invalidate the ACA, "in order to replace it with a much better health care at a much lower price. … But we will protect people with pre-existing conditions." However, Trump did not detail how he plans to replace the ACA if it is struck down. In addition, many legal experts—and Guthrie during last night's Town Hall—have noted that the actions Trump has taken so far regarding protections for people with pre-existing conditions have been largely symbolic, and haven't included detailed or binding proposals that would ensure those protections exist if the ACA is eliminated.

    Biden faces questions on coronavirus response—and a possible vaccine mandate

    In comparison to Trump's town hall, health care overall wasn't as much of a focus during Biden's town hall. For example, Biden didn't face questions on or spend notable time discussing the ACA or his health reform plan.

    However, Biden's town hall kicked off with questions from the audience regarding America's coronavirus epidemic, and Biden faced questions on whether he would get—and potentially mandate that Americans receive—a vaccine against the novel coronavirus.

    '[L]ooking backwards to when this country first became aware of Covid-19, what would following the science have meant in terms of actual policy? And then, looking forward, what would your administration do in terms of following the science with real concrete policies that haven't been done by the [Trump] administration?'

    In his response to this question from an audience member, Biden first noted that the Trump administration in February opted not to keep in China 44 people who had been working there to track potential pandemics under an office created under former President Barack Obama's administration.

    "I argued that we should be keeping people in China," Biden said, and that the United States should "ask to have access to the source of the problem." Biden added, "[T]o the best of our knowledge, Trump never pushed that. All those 44 people came home, never got replaced."

    Biden also pointed to an opinion piece he wrote, which was published by USA Today on Jan. 27, in which he argued that the novel coronavirus could be a serious problem for America.

    In contrast, Biden said, "We later learned that [Trump] knew full well how serious it was … [a]nd at the time, he said he didn't tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic." Biden was referring to interviews in which Trump said he initially downplayed the epidemic to avoid creating "panic" in the United States.

    Biden then noted that, in March, he outlined "what [he] thought we should be doing to take hold of this," including using the Defense Production Act to produce "ventilators and so on." In comparison, Biden said, Trump "missed enormous opportunities and kept saying things that weren't true," such as the coronavirus would "go away by Easter" or the summer.

    George Stephanopoulos, a chief anchor at ABC News who moderated the town hall, pressed Biden on when he began calling for social distancing and wearing face masks to combat the coronavirus epidemic. Biden said he began calling for such measures "at the end of March." He said, "If you notice, from March on, I stopped doing big meetings, I started wearing masks, you know? So, it was at a time when the science was saying and [Trump's] key people … were saying, you should be taking these precautions."

    Looking forward, Biden said he believes "there should be a national standard" coordinated by the federal government to address Covid-19. "It is the presidential responsibility to lead," Biden said.

    Stephanopoulos noted the Biden has said he "would lock down the economy only if … scientist[s] said it was necessary," but that scientists and economists often disagree. "So," Stephanopoulos asked, "how are you going to decide this? Who are you going to listen to and how can you contain the [epidemic] without crushing the economy?"

    Biden said he has "laid out a plan [for] how you can open businesses," adding, "You can open businesses and schools if in fact you provide them the guidance that they need as well as the money to be able to do it." Testing and contact tracing also are a "critical piece," Biden said. Biden later in the town hall also suggested that mask wearing would be key. "You don't have to lock down if you are wearing the mask," he said.

    "If a vaccine were approved between now and the end of the year, would you take it and if you were to become president, would you mandate that everyone has to take it?"

    This question came from an audience member who noted that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is Biden's vice presidential candidate, has "stated that she absolutely would not take a vaccine from President Trump."

    Biden in response said Trump has made inaccurate claims about a potential coronavirus vaccine, such as saying one would be available by the beginning of November, which runs counter to timelines offered by top scientists and drugmakers working on coronavirus vaccine candidates. However, Biden said, "if the body of science is saying that this is what is ready to be done and … it's been tested and they've gone through the three phases [of clinical trials]; yes, I would take it and I'd encourage people to take it."

    Stephanopoulos then pressed Biden on whether he would mandate that all Americans receive a coronavirus vaccine if one is proven to be "safe" and "effective."

    Biden said it would depend on how much the vaccine would benefit Americans. "It depends on the state of the nature of the vaccine when it comes out and how it's being distributed," he said. "But," Biden added, "I would think that we should be talking about—depending on the continuation of the spread of the virus, we should be thinking about making it mandatory."

    Stephanopoulos asked Biden how he would "enforce" such a mandate, to which Biden responded: "Well, you couldn't. That's the problem. … [J]ust like you can't mandate a mask."

    However, Biden said that, as president, he could go to state and local officials and urge them to mandate and encourage mask wearing—and he could set an example, himself. "[T]he words of a president matter," he said, "No matter whether they're good, bad, or indifferent, they matter."

    The next debate

    Currently, Trump and Biden are scheduled to appear in a final presidential debate on Thursday, Oct. 22, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. The 90-minute debate is expected to be moderated by NBC News' Kristen Welker.

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