You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Biden Moves to Jump-Start Covid Fight With Slew of Orders

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/21/2021 Stephanie Armour, Sabrina Siddiqui
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: President Biden spoke about the Covid-19 response before signing executive orders intended to combat the coronavirus. © jonathan ernst/Reuters President Biden spoke about the Covid-19 response before signing executive orders intended to combat the coronavirus.

WASHINGTON—President Biden signed 10 executive orders on his first full day in office to combat the coronavirus, seeking Thursday to jump-start the U.S. response to the pandemic while warning it will take “many months to get where we need to be.”

The new strategy is focused partly on ramping up vaccinations and curbing the spread of the virus through mask wearing, testing data and treatments, and includes the executive orders and directives signed Thursday. One order directs agencies to use their authority, including the Defense Production Act, to meet shortfalls in supplies such as masks, while another establishes a pandemic testing board to expand testing supply and access.

Another order requires masks in airports and in certain types of public transportation such as many trains, ships, intercity buses and airplanes.

Mr. Biden’s success in achieving some of his biggest policy objectives—curbing climate change, expanding health coverage and overhauling immigration laws—will depend in large part on his success in combating the pandemic. On Thursday, he sought to manage expectations.

“We’re in a dark winter of this pandemic,” said Mr. Biden, warning that the situation will get worse before it gets better. He said he expected the U.S. death toll to top 500,000 next month. Still, he promised, “Help is on the way.”

Health experts both inside and outside the new administration agree that while accelerating vaccinations will help restore normalcy and spur momentum for Mr. Biden’s broader political agenda, the opposite is also true: Failing to slow the spread of Covid-19 could overshadow his presidency.

Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University, said, “Dealing with Covid and the economic recovery is the thing that will make the presidency in the next two years and into the 2022 election.” He added, “If it doesn’t get better, people are going to hold the administration accountable.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Mr. Biden’s top medical adviser on Covid-19, said Thursday the new administration was ramping up the federal response to the pandemic while also building on steps taken by the Trump administration.

“We certainly are not starting from scratch,” Dr. Fauci said at a briefing alongside White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We’re coming in with fresh ideas, but also some ideas that were not bad ideas with the previous administration.”

Still, Dr. Fauci said he was encouraged by Mr. Biden’s promise to heed the guidance of scientists and public-health officials.

“The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is and know that’s it, let the science speak—it is somewhat of a liberating feeling,” Dr. Fauci said. “One of the new things in this administration, if you don’t know the answer, don’t guess. Just say you don’t know the answer.”

Mr. Biden’s first full day as president also saw Democratic efforts to quickly confirm his nominees and move forward with his legislative agenda collide with the reality of a narrowly divided Congress. Senate Republicans refused to agree to a power-sharing agreement unless Democrats promised to preserve a 60-vote threshold to advance most bills.

It isn’t known when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) will next meet to continue negotiations over an organizing resolution that would set the guidelines and committee assignments for the new session.

Mr. Biden’s national strategy announced Thursday is part of a blizzard of activity to curb the virus in his first 100 days, including a federal mask mandate, the administration of 100 million vaccines, the establishment of 100 federally supported vaccination centers, and reopening of most kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools.

Dr. Leana Wen, health policy professor at George Washington University, said the Biden strategy was comprehensive, but its goal was too low. “It’s not bold enough. Specifically 100 million doses in 100 days is a million vaccinations a day. At that rate, we won’t get to herd immunity until June 2022,” she said.

“I also would have liked to see a full-scale mask mandate,” Dr. Wen added. “If there is concern that the federal government can’t mandate states to do so, they can try alternate mechanisms—for example, tying federal funding to state masking requirements.”

The orders signed Thursday also call for studies, including large-scale randomized trials, to identify treatments. And Mr. Biden’s administration will create public dashboards with state-by-state and national information on testing, vaccinations and hospital admissions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make vaccines available in local pharmacies beginning next month, and agencies will work on guidance for reopening schools and emergency temporary standards requiring employers to take steps to keep workers safe from Covid-19.

“This is a fundamentally different approach from the Trump administration,” Jeffrey Zients, the White House Covid-19 coordinator, said on Wednesday, adding that the administration’s strategy is “driven by science, data and public health.”

“There is a path out of this darkness,” Mr. Zients said.

The president has promised to make the vaccine available regardless of immigration status and outlined plans to establish thousands of community vaccination centers across the country. One of the executive orders will create a Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force to provide recommendations to tackle inequities in outcomes by race, ethnicity, geography and disability.

Mr. Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain, who was the White House Ebola coordinator in 2014, said the target of 100 million vaccinations was a clear metric by which the incoming administration would be judged in its first 100 days.

“Ultimately the goal is to wipe out the virus. How long or short that takes depends in some ways on the course of the virus and obviously the course to which people follow our leadership,” Mr. Klain said. “But I think we should be measured by the actions the administration takes to try to change the way in which this country is handling this crisis.”

The Biden plan calls for a round of $1,400-per-person direct payments to most households, a $400-a-week unemployment insurance supplement through September, expanded paid leave and increases in the child tax credit.

The budget package would include $50 billion to increase coronavirus testing, including at schools, as well as federal funds for states, a national vaccination program, disaster relief, expansion of the public-health workforce. Mr. Biden’s proposal also seeks to fund a corps of 100,000 public-health workers, whose tasks would include vaccine education and contact tracing to identify people who were exposed and infected.

Mr. Biden’s team focused on coronavirus has already had conversations with governors and industry to increase the federal response.

“The most important challenge and one Biden campaigned on is he’s going to try and unify us around a common national goal,” according to a senior administration official.

Mr. Biden wants Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion economic relief plan against a backdrop of an already large federal deficit. Some Republicans have already dismissed the spending plan, and Mr. Biden will need bipartisan support in the evenly divided Senate, where legislation must clear a 60-vote threshold.

“Blasting out another $2 trillion in borrowed or printed money—when the ink on December’s $1 trillion aid bill is barely dry and much of the money is not yet spent—would be a colossal waste and economically harmful,” said GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Vaccine supplies from drugmakers are limited, restricting the number of people able to get the shots. Any efforts to further boost output by using the Defense Production Act and funneling $20 billion to the national vaccination effort, as Mr. Biden has promised, will take time.

“We really should be at least 3 million a day,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “Even if we do 1 million vaccines a day, it would take until mid-2022 to give the vaccine to 80%” of Americans, reaching the threshold public-health leaders have said is needed for herd immunity.

Many of Mr. Biden’s proposals, including mass vaccination centers and mask mandates, call for partnership with state leaders. Some Republican governors such as Ron DeSantis of Florida, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Doug Ducey of Arizona and Brian Kemp of Georgia have eschewed full statewide mask mandates. Mr. Biden is enforcing a mask mandate in federal buildings and on interstate travel and will work with governors to encourage state mask mandates where they don’t already exist.

There is also a partisan divide in the public over the true risk of coronavirus, potentially complicating Mr. Biden’s ability to get buy-in for his proposals. Sixty-three percent of Republicans believe the outbreak has been overblown, compared with 14% of Democrats who think it has been exaggerated, according to an Oct. 19 poll by the Pew Research Center.

Still, a number of public-health leaders who have criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic are praising the plan as an opportunity to emerge from the crisis. Others want him to do more, such as mailing highly effective masks to all Americans or using the might of the federal government to make drug manufacturers produce larger quantities of vaccines.

The virus has spawned more transmissible variants that could further strain hospitals. More than 24 million people in the U.S. have been infected with Covid-19 and 402,400 have died as of Jan. 20, according to Johns Hopkins University. More than 16.5 million vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S. so far.

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com and Sabrina Siddiqui at Sabrina.Siddiqui@wsj.com

AdChoices
AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal.
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon