President Joe Biden will take steps on Thursday to begin addressing COVID-19 with a cohesive cross-agency plan after a year of the Trump administration evading responsibility for managing the national crisis.
Thursday’s executive orders, in addition to directives and memos, seek to take some of the pressure off of states and try to address the pandemic by setting in place some national standards in areas like data collection, vaccine distribution, and access to protective equipment like masks and cleaning supplies.
As the worst stretch of the pandemic continues, more than 400,000 people in the US have died, with over 100,000 people dying in a little over a month. Biden will sign 10 executive orders on his second day in office that will give federal agencies the use of the Defense Production Act to speed up the manufacture and distribution of supplies and PPE to fight the virus and build 100 public vaccination centers nationally through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
To meet his goal of giving 100 million vaccine shots within his first 100 days in office, Biden also plans to launch a federal program to make vaccines “available to communities in their local pharmacies beginning next month” if they are within the eligible categories to be vaccinated. Under the Trump administration, Operation Warp Speed had also committed to distributing the vaccines via pharmacies, but rollout has been slow.
“Over 77,000 Americans lost their lives to COVID-19 in December, and across our nation businesses are closing, hospitals are full, and families are saying goodbye to their loved ones remotely. The National Strategy provides a roadmap to guide America out of the worst public health crisis in a century,” said a White House memo shared with reporters.
Biden’s national COVID-19 plan aims to “fundamentally change the course of this pandemic,” Jeff Zients, Biden’s COVID-19 coordinator, said on a call previewing the orders with reporters.
Many of the measures Biden plans to sign on Thursday are in keeping with the approach he has outlined over the past couple of months.
He aims to have most schools open nationally within 100 days. To that end, Biden will sign an executive order for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to develop guidance for how schools, childcare facilities, and colleges can safely reopen.
Federal departments will also begin collecting data on school openings and closures “so state and local officials have metrics” to help make decisions and understand where closures might disadvantage students from families living in poverty, students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.
The return to federally collected data as a foundation for decision-making is a central part of Biden’s COVID-19 strategy.
Another executive order Biden plans to sign focuses on improving safety while traveling. The order will mandate masks in all airports and on some trains and intercity buses. The administration will also require international travelers to show proof that they tested negative for COVID before departing for the US and to then comply with CDC quarantine guidelines upon arrival.
“This is a national emergency, and we need to treat it accordingly,” Zeints said.
He added that doctors, scientists, public health experts, teachers, nurses, civil rights groups, unions, and business foundations have been consulted to develop Biden’s COVID-19 executive orders and other parts of his plan.
Biden advisers on the call said they have a ”foundational commitment to equity.” Asked if that could mean introducing race and ethnicity as another way to prioritize vaccine distribution, given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown people, a Biden adviser said it was “too early to say” if the administration would consider it.
The president has said since last summer that the federal government should take some leadership in guiding Americans through the pandemic. He has criticized Donald Trump’s denial of the severity of the virus, which continued even after the former president actually contracted the virus himself. Biden’s team will have their work cut out for them in detangling the haphazard and anti-science approach the Trump administration took to the pandemic, which has encouraged many of his supporters not to take precautions like wearing a face mask in public, even as the death toll continues to rise.
In an effort to combat that misinformation, Biden’s team will hold weekly press briefings to inform people on the latest updates regarding the pandemic, including with Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical and scientific experts. The team will also release reports and guidance to Americans on best practices for health and safety.