WASHINGTON (CN) — Shortfalls in the nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic are finally on track to be rectified, President Joe Biden said Thursday as he signed several executive orders meant to jumpstart federal action.
So far over 400,000 Americans are dead from the virus, millions have been infected, vaccines are being distributed unevenly and the U.S. death toll is currently climbing by over 4,000 per day.
This situation, Biden lamented during a White House press conference, has forced the country to reckon with a “brutal truth.”
“It will take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated,” Biden said, flanked by a masked Vice President Kamala Harris and the Biden administration’s newly minted pandemic adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
To shore up response, Biden signed a series of executive orders, including one aimed at establishing a sustain public health supply chain that will increase reliance on the wartime era Defense Production Act.
While President Donald Trump used the law ramp up ventilator and mask production, a report by the independent Congressional Research Service from July found implementation was “sporadic and relatively narrow.” For example, of the $1 billion Congress approved for use under the Defense Production Act last year, the research service found nearly $700 million went straight to the Department of Defense for unrelated expenses. Some funds went to semiconductor manufacturing and ship building contracts.
Biden’s Covid-19 response plan takes a different approach. While Trump was hesitant to use the Defense Production Act broadly because of concerns over governmental overreach, Biden is calling for immediate action by federal agencies to expand supply stockpiles on everything from N95 masks to vaccine-specific syringes to isolation gowns, swabs and testing reagents.
The new administration has identified at least 12 “immediate supply shortfalls,” Biden said at the press conference.
On a call with reporters, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients described what the Biden administration inherited from Trump.
“We have to vaccinate as much of the U.S. population as possible to put this pandemic behind us, but we don’t have the infrastructure,” he said Wednesday.
In addition to expanding use of the Defense Production Act, Biden issued nine other executive orders meant to help reach the administration’s goal of 100 million vaccine shots in its first 100 days.
Besides a mandate for mask-wearing on public transportation, including planes, trains and busses, the president also ordered that all international travelers will need to present a negative Covid-19 test before entry to the U.S.
Others executive orders issued Thursday include two directives that deliver on proposals Biden touted on the campaign trial.
One stands up the National Pandemic Testing Board to streamline testing initiatives across the U.S. while assisting with state and local capacity. Another order creates a new taskforce called the Covid-19 Health Equity Force. It will be charged with addressing vaccine access in communities often disproportionately impacted by the virus – typically communities of color where front-line workers are majority Black or Latino.
Biden said the equity force will also work to foment trust between the federal government and members of the public who are hesitant to take the vaccine.
“Above all, our plan is to restore public trust,” he said. “Scientists and public health experts will speak directly to you. That’s why you’ll be hearing a lot more from Dr. Fauci again – not from the president.”
In another order, Biden directed the Health and Human Services Department to work with states to reopen schools for in-person learning, but only thorough “data-driven” consultations that account for various factors like race and ethnicity. Contact tracing for schools must also be fleshed out before schools reopen.
Front-line health care workers could also see updated pandemic guidelines controlling their workplaces under another executive order, which directs the Labor Department to publish revised guidance for employers on workplace safety during the pandemic. That is due in two weeks.
Other agency heads, including those at the departments for agriculture, energy and transportation, are ordered to explore their own workplace guidance while consulting with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration across the state level.
Yet another order calls on the secretaries of state and health and human services to, within 30 days, give the White House recommendations on how the U.S. can regain its footing at the World Health Organization after Trump abruptly yanked America out of it. Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday formally readmitting the U.S. to the WHO.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also been directed by Biden to stand up 100 community testing centers around the U.S. by February.
At a separate White House press briefing about an hour later, Fauci celebrated the sea change in approach to the federal pandemic response.
Fauci was regularly sidelined by Trump largely because he often publicly contradicted the former president’s demonstrably false statements about therapeutics, infection or viral spread.
“I can tell you, I take no pleasure at all being in a situation of contradicting the president, so it was really something that you didn’t feel you could actually say something and there wouldn’t be any repercussions about it,” Fauci said. “The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence and science is, and know that’s it – let the science speak – it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”
Fauci acknowledged some headway had been made by the previous administration in terms of vaccine distribution, saying the new team had not been left to start “from scratch.” But Biden is more focused on basing everything on the science moving forward, he added.
“One of the things that was very clear as recently as about 15 minutes ago when I was with the president is that the one thing we’re going to do is be completely transparent, open and honest if things go wrong, not point fingers, but correct them,” Fauci said. “And to make everything we do be based on science and evidence.”
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