Trump and Biden Face Off Over COVID-19, ACA in Final Debate

Damian McNamara

October 23, 2020

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden

The COVID-19 pandemic figured prominently in the final debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden when they met on stage for a 90-minute debate in Nashville, Tennessee, Thursday evening.

The adequacy of the COVID-19 response to date, the likely timeline for vaccine availability, and how to reopen businesses while keeping Americans safe were among the points on which the two candidates disagreed. The two candidates also sparred over the value of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the future of healthcare in the United States.

Trump and Biden also differed on whether or not the country is facing a "dark winter" because of the pandemic.

Moderator Kristen Welker, NBC News White House correspondent, asked Trump to comment on the fact that 40,000 people are in the hospital on debate night with COVID-19 and that 16,000 have died since the last presidential debate.

Trump said, "2.2 million people modeled out were expected to die." He said COVID-19 is a worldwide disease that does not only affect the United States.

For some context, Trump's reference to 2.2 million comes from a report in March by Imperial College London. The amount is for the number of lives that could be lost if absolutely no action was taken, according to FactCheck.org.

"The mortality rate is down 85%, and the excess mortality is also down," he added. He pointed out that previous spikes in Florida, Texas, and Arizona are now gone, and "spikes and surges in other places will soon be gone.

"It will go away, we are rounding the corner," Trump said. "From personal experience, I was in the hospital, I had it, and they gave me a therapeutic, some would call it a cure...and now they say I'm immune. Whether it's for a month or lifetime, nobody has been able to say that, but I'm immune."

Numbers from the COVID Tracking Project show that as of October 22, more than 61,000 new cases have been reported each day on average for the past 7 days. That's up from a mid-September lull of 34,000 cases per day — and is approaching the earlier peak in mid-July.

Biden countered by saying that "220,000 people are dead. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this: Anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America."

Biden said there are a thousand deaths a day now and that there are over 70K new cases per day. "The expectation is we will have another 200,000 people down before the end of this year. If we just all wore these masks, we could save 100,000."

"The New England Journal of Medicine said the way the president has handled this is absolutely tragic," Biden added.

Vaccine Timeline

Welker asked Trump if he could guarantee that there will be a COVID-19 vaccine within weeks.

"I can't guarantee that, but it will be by end of the year. It will be distributed very quickly," Trump said. He added that three leading vaccine developers, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer, "are doing very well."

"We're about to go into a dark winter and he has no clear plan," Biden said. "There is no prospect there will be a vaccine for most Americans by middle of next year."

"It will not be a dark winter," Trump responded.

Reopening the Economy

Trump and Biden disagreed on how aggressively the economy should be reopened in light of the pandemic.

"I want to open the schools. We can't keep this country closed," Trump said. "This is a massive country with a massive economy." He pointed out that rates of depression and suicide have risen because of the economic shutdown. "The cure cannot be worse than the problem.

"His Democrat governors...shut down so tight, and they're dying," the president added, gesturing toward Biden. "We are not going to shut down. We are going to open the schools." As an example of the resiliency of young people, he mentioned that his son Barron tested positive for COVID-19 and recovered.

"I would shut down the virus, not the country," Biden said. "It's his ineptitude that caused so many schools and businesses to close in large part. Instead of being in a sand trap playing golf, he should have been negotiating with Nancy Pelosi."

"He says we're learning to live with it," the former vice president said, but instead, "people are learning to die with it."

Biden added that reopening the economy and minimizing transmission of COVID-19 are not mutually exclusive. "We can walk and chew gum at the same time."

Divergence Over the ACA

The fate of the ACA also garnered considerable attention. The discussion underlined a vast difference of opinion between the two candidates on the US healthcare system.

The moderator asked Trump what he would do for the 20 million Americans who get their healthcare through the ACA if it's taken away.

"Through the legislature, I terminated the individual mandate, the worst part of Obamacare," Trump said. "And now it's in court because Obamacare is no good.

"Preexisting conditions will stay," Trump added.

"I want to terminate Obamacare, and I want to come up with a beautiful healthcare [plan]," Trump added, turning the discussion toward private health insurance. "One thing that is very important is we have 180 million out there who have great private healthcare. Joe Biden will terminate all of their healthcare."

Trump described Biden's plan as "socialized medicine." He also emphasized that protections for people with preexisting conditions "will stay."

The Trump administration is supporting a lawsuit to overturn the ACA. The suit was filed by 18 Republican-led states. Arguments before the US Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the ACA are scheduled for November 10.

The moderator asked what Biden plans to do if the ACA is struck down. "I will pass Obamacare with a public option ― that will be 'Bidencare.' " He said his plan will reduce premiums and drug prices. "I support private insurance. No one lost their private insurance under Obamacare.

"There is no way he can protect preexisting conditions," Biden said. He added that 10 million people have already lost their private healthcare through unemployment during the pandemic.

Muting the Mic

Following what many described as a chaotic first debate at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio on September 29, the Commission on Presidential Debate opted to allow the muting of the microphone during the first 2 minutes of remarks made by each candidate during each debate segment.

The muting of the microphones appeared to prevent crosstalk during the beginning of each segment of the debate. The candidates did manage to talk over and interrupt each other, as well as the moderator, during portions of the debate.

Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology and neurology. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.

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Editor's note: This article has been updated to provide text on some of the pandemic numbers mentioned by Trump in the debate.

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