Hours after his swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, President Joe Biden got started on the most pressing challenge facing the country: the pandemic that has killed over 400,000 of its citizens.
Biden hit the ground running, signing three executive orders on the coronavirus and releasing a 21-page summary of his “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness.” Coming off a president who repeatedly undermined science and his own public-health experts; flouted basic safety protocols and held massive, mostly mask-less campaign rallies; and effectively botched the rollout of the largest mass-vaccination campaign in American history, the bar is not particularly high. The clear room for improvement was reflected in the summary’s first of seven goals: “restore trust with the American people,” an effort that involves, among other things, conducting “regular, expert-led, science-based briefings.”
But Biden’s moves go far beyond pro-science rhetoric, and signal a significant shift from the Trump administration, which refused to coordinate a federal response to combat the coronavirus, leaving it up to state governments. On Thursday, Biden released the full 198-page version of his national pandemic strategy and signed ten more executive orders aimed at increasing testing and vaccine production, and implementing safety measures.
Among the biggest challenges Biden and his team face is the absence of vaccine-distribution plans: Within hours of the new administration, Biden advisers were reportedly shocked to find Trump had left his successor to basically start from “square one” on vaccine-distribution strategy, even after multiple vaccines had, for weeks, been approved for use in the U.S. “There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” one source told CNN, throwing Biden’s pledge to dramatically ramp up vaccine distribution and administration into doubt. (Already, some experts have criticized Biden’s 100 million shots in 100 days promise as not ambitious enough.) “What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said. Biden also has the goal of having 100 federally supported community vaccination centers in operation within the next month, and has already directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin that effort, according to the New York Times.
Ramping up testing is another major focus for Biden, who, in an executive order on Thursday, directed all federal agencies and private industries via the Defense Production Act to expedite the manufacturing of supplies necessary for the pandemic response, including test supplies and kits, vaccines, and masks. These items are among the “12 immediate supply shortfalls” Biden officials say they have identified. The administration’s strategy also involves the expanded testing of asymptomatic people to reopen schools and businesses. “On the asymptomatic screening side, we’re woefully under capacity,” Zients said. The renewed focus on testing people without COVID-19 symptoms comes after Trump White House officials last August pressured the CDC into saying asymptomatic people did not need testing even if they had been exposed to the virus — controversial recommendations the public-health agency walked back in new testing guidelines a month later.
The reopening of schools is also a focus for Biden, who signed an executive order Thursday directing the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to issue new guidance on how to safely reopen and operate schools, child-care providers, and institutions of higher education — another stark departure from the Trump administration. Last fall, White House officials reportedly pressured CDC officials to alter guidance in a way that would play down the continued spread of the pandemic and the risk it poses to young people. The effort was part of the administration’s push to reopen schools — a center of Trump’s demands for a return to normalcy — in time for Election Day. Biden will also direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to “immediately release clear guidance for employers” to protect their health, according to the Times.
A more simple COVID prevention effort was also announced on Thursday, requiring travelers to wear masks at airports and on planes, trains, ferries, intercity buses, and all forms of public transportation.
Much of Biden’s plan can’t be accomplished through executive orders. He will need help in Congress to enact many aspects of his national strategy, such as increased testing and vaccines, and his proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package. “While we will urgently execute the strategy, we do need Congress to act — and act quickly,” Zients said, previewing the battle that will take shape in the coming weeks and months.