Vaccine rollout and pandemic response lay bare the limits of federal competence

Written by Derek Monson

February 4, 2021

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has drawn criticism. But from the beginning of the pandemic, Washington, D.C., has been criticized for its response to the public health crisis. Some even consider the federal failures to respond adequately to the pandemic as the primary reason for former President Donald Trump’s election loss to President Joe Biden.

Many were hoping that the change in administration would lead to an improved federal response to the pandemic. Yet reports of federal pandemic failures continue. This could simply be because the Biden administration is so new that it hasn’t had time to get a handle on things – but that’s not the only reasonable interpretation.

What if the real problem is that some issues are beyond the competence of the federal government? The United States is certainly not the only nation that has experienced significant rates of infection or a high number of deaths from COVID-19.

Let’s examine the evidence, from the beginning of the pandemic to now.


COVID tests

In the beginning of the pandemic, what we needed was a large supply of accurate, reliable tests to detect COVID-19 infection in patients. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – the federal government’s public health experts – designed a COVID-19 test that it sent to labs for them to use. At the same time, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced rules that would not allow other tests to be used in commercial or state labs until they went through a lengthy federal emergency use process.

Unfortunately, the CDC’s test was faulty.

Other nations at that time were achieving the ability to test tens of thousands – even millions – of people a week. The CDC’s testing failure, on the other hand, put America in the position of being unable early on in the pandemic to even identify outbreaks of COVID-19, let alone respond to or contain them.


Mask guidance

After the federal COVID testing failure, federal public health officials advised in March 2020 that it was unnecessary for healthy Americans to wear masks. Then, midway through 2020, these same federal officials flipped and said that everyone should wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The federal public health experts’ initial opposition to broad mask wearing was out of concern for mask shortages among healthcare workers, while their later support of universal mask wearing was driven by scientific evidence regarding how COVID-19 spreads.

But whatever the motivation of federal public health experts, the damage was done. Conflicting guidance on masks – amplified by media coverage of the guidance – caused confusion when the public needed clarity about what they could do to protect themselves and their loved ones. While the experts may have had good reason to be against masks before being for masks, the impact of contradictory federal guidance was unquestionably bad.


Mitigation plans

As the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up, Washington, D.C., had a “pandemic playbook” for how to respond to an infectious disease such as COVID-19. However, federal decision-makers chose not to follow that plan.

Instead, states created and implemented their own pandemic response plans. This decision has drawn criticism from some about its impact on public health outcomes.



The number of Americans getting vaccinated against COVID-19 has gone up much more slowly than anticipated. Problems with vaccine rollout in the U.S. – unused vaccines, unpredictable vaccine supplies, unequitable distribution of vaccines, etc. – have not significantly changed so far with the new presidential administration. It is possible these problems will be resolved in time, but the current trend is not promising.



The federal track record on pandemic response has been poor from the beginning. In some cases, this was due to decisions of administration officials, while in others it was due to the decisions of public health experts. This trajectory has yet to be significantly altered under the new administration.

Perhaps that is just an issue of time. However, it could also be evidence that in our federalist system – where the federal government and state governments have distinct powers and authority – the federal government is simply outside its competence in certain things, such as responding both quickly and effectively to a highly contagious pandemic disease.

If so, this civics insight should guide public health policy for federal government response to future pandemics and should inform the public’s views of that response. Some things we can reasonably expect the federal government to do well (e.g. national defense). But in a nation as large and diverse (in many ways) as the United States, we should not expect the federal government to be able to do everything well – and should not even ask it to do things outside the scope of its constitutional authority.

If we will take this civics lesson to heart, we might find that it will improve the lives of Americans at the federal and state levels alike. After a year as tumultuous as 2020, that would be a welcome change of pace.

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