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Estimates of vaccine spending in the American Rescue Plan bill range from $14 billion to $20 billion or more.
Total spending directly on COVID-19’s health impacts ranges from $100 billion to $160 billion.
The biggest spending in the bill includes $422 billion in stimulus checks for individuals, $350 billion for state and local governments, and $242 billion for unemployment benefits.
At the high end, direct COVID-19 spending represents about 8.5% of the bill’s $1.9 trillion cost.
Republicans’ primary objection to the COVID-19 and economic stimulus bill making its way through Congress is that it spends relatively little on the disease itself.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the $1.9 trillion package known as the American Rescue Plan was loaded with "pet projects" that had nothing to do with the pandemic or economic recovery.
"All kinds of liberal wish list items that would do nothing to help American families put COVID behind them," McConnell said Feb. 24. "Just about 1% of the money is for vaccines."
McConnell’s focus on 1% for vaccines caught our attention.
His staff said he drew on the words of the Democrats themselves when they unveiled a key section of the sweeping bill.
The chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., highlighted a handful of items in the package in a news release, including $14 billion for vaccines, $46 billion for testing, contact tracing, and mitigation, and $25 billion to reduce health disparities across the country.
However, there are different ways to add up the numbers.
The same Democratic-controlled committee that provided the $14 billion figure came out a few days later with a factsheet that uses an amount of $20 billion. And they note there’s an additional $5 billion for advanced vaccine development.
The different totals depend on what counts as vaccine spending. The lower figure in the first Democratic press release included only work at the CDC, the FDA, and ensuring a reliable supply chain to produce and administer the vaccine.
The higher Democratic tally included other activities, such as sequencing the genome of virus variants and paying for health care workers to administer the vaccine.
How much does this matter?
In percentage terms, not that much. Even a total of $25 billion still amounts to just over 1% of the bill’s estimated price tag. That’s because the overall package includes big ticket items such as $422 billion in stimulus checks to individuals, $350 billion for state and local governments, and $242 billion for expanded unemployment benefits.
But in terms of dollars, there’s a big difference between $14 billion and $20 billion or $25 billion.
The point is, it’s possible to use percentages to make an amount appear small, and actual dollars to make the same amount look substantial.
The most heated debate in Congress centers on how the American Rescue Plan deals with the economic damage of the pandemic.
McConnell’s claim has more to do with the money aimed most directly at the virus and pandemic itself. In that vein, focussing strictly on vaccines leaves out a lot of the picture.
The biggest overlooked piece is $46 billion for testing and other surveillance work.
That work is as important as any other, said Amesh Adalja at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Better surveillance helps target vaccine distribution to certain states or communities, and is part of spotting virus mutations to improve the next generation of vaccines.
"There is a continuum and integration between all response activities," Adajla said. "Those include testing, tracing, isolating and vaccinating."
Vaccines have to make their way into people’s arms, and the legislation funds several programs to support that work, including $7.6 billion to hire 100,000 community health workers.
We found different ways to add up all the spending tied directly to COVID-19. On the low end, the total is about $100 billion. On the high end, the White House says it is $160 billion, which adds items such as $10 billion in medical supplies, $24 billion in child care for health care and other essential workers, and literally dozens of smaller amounts.
Depending on which line items you include, the legislation would spend anywhere from 4.5% to 8.5% of the total cost directly on the pandemic’s health aspects.
McConnell said that in the American Rescue Plan, "just about 1% of the money is for vaccines." Based on Democratic figures of either $14 billion or $20 billion for vaccines, and a $1.9 trillion overall price tag, the math is about right.
The American Rescue Plan spends much more on the financial damage caused by the virus than on its health aspects alone, and McConnell picked a way to minimize the health-related spending. The statistic omits a much greater amount of spending on overall efforts to contain the pandemic. That ranges from about $100 billion to $160 billion, or between 5% and 8% of the bill’s total cost.
His statement is accurate, but needs additional information. That’s our definition of Mostly True.
Mitch McConnell, Senate floor speech, Feb. 24, 2021
U.S. House Budget Committee, American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Feb. 19, 2021
U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, PALLONE ON COMMITTEE PASSAGE OF COVID-19 RELIEF LEGISLATION, Feb. 12, 2021
U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fact Sheet on House’s Reconciliation Package, February 2021
Congressional Budget Office, Estimated Budget Effects of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Feb. 19, 2021
Congressional Budget Office, Reconciliation Recommendations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Feb. 14, 2021
Congressional Budget Office, Reconciliation Recommendations of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Feb. 15, 2021
Joint Committee on Taxation, Estimated Budgetary Effects Of The Revenue Provisions Of The Budget Reconciliation Legislative Recommendations, Feb. 15, 2021
White House, Remarks by President Biden at an Event Commemorating the 50 Millionth COVID-19 Vaccine Shot, Feb. 25, 2021
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Four Key Elements of the American Rescue Plan, Feb. 24, 2021
Wall Street Journal, Stimulus Package: What’s in Joe Biden’s ‘American Rescue Plan’?, Feb. 23, 2021
Email exchange, Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Feb. 24, 2021
Email exchange, Jennifer Kates, senior vice president, Kaiser Family Foundation, Feb. 24, 2021
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