WASHINGTON (AP) – Through a series of executive orders, President Joe Biden made clear Thursday that the nation’s fight against COVID-19 is under new administration, and that he will demand progress to reduce infections and put end the siege the Americans have endured for about a year.
At the same time, he tried to contain expectations on his second day in the White House, saying that despite having the best of intentions “we are going to face setbacks.” He ignored a reporter’s question as to whether his goal of 100 million coronavirus vaccines in 100 days should be more ambitious, an issue urged by some public health experts.
With the 10 orders signed by Biden, it is intended to start a national strategy against COVID-19 through an increase in vaccination and in the performance of diagnostic tests, creating the basis for the reopening of schools and businesses. It also increases the use of masks, including the obligation to wear them during travel. A guideline addresses inequity in healthcare for minority communities ravaged by the virus.
“We did not fall into this disaster overnight, and it will take months to change the situation,” Biden said at the White House. Deaths from COVID-19 in the United States have increased to more than 400,000, and he noted that there are estimates that they could reach 500,000 in a month.
But then, staring at the television camera, Biden declared, “To a nation waiting for action to be taken, let me be clear: Help is on the way.”
The new president has promised to take much more aggressive measures to curb the virus than his predecessor did, beginning with strict adherence to public health standards. A crucial difference is that with Biden, the federal government is taking full responsibility for the COVID response. And instead of delegating important tasks to the states, he is offering them assistance with technical support and federal resources.
Biden faces major hurdles as the virus is spreading in most states, there are vaccine shortages, slow delivery of doses, and political uncertainty about whether Republican lawmakers will help him pass a $ 1 economic rescue package. , 9 trillion dollars.
Added to the difficulties are mutations in the virus, particularly one that emerged in South Africa, which could make vaccines less effective. Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters at a White House briefing that “we are paying great attention to that.” Biden’s plan includes an expansion of research capabilities to map the genetic makeup of the new variants.
An influential group among Republican officials voiced support for the president’s strategy. The US Chamber of Commerce said: “We support the new administration’s approach to removing barriers to vaccinations and reopening schools, both important steps to accelerate a widespread economic recovery for all Americans.”
Biden officials complain about the previous administration’s lack of cooperation during the transition. They say they do not fully understand what steps were taken to distribute vaccines. And states are complaining about the lack of vaccines at a time when they are asked to extend the immunization campaign to new sectors of the population.
Biden’s order to wear a mask will apply to airports and airplanes, ships, long-distance buses, trains and public transportation. Foreign travelers must submit a negative COVID-19 test before departing for the United States and observe quarantine upon arrival. The use of the mask on all federal property was already mandatory.
While airlines, the train system and other transportation providers require passengers to wear masks, Biden’s executive order makes it a federal mandate, leaving little room for passengers tempted to argue about their rights. The move was praised by airline unions and supported by a major industry trade group.
It marks a clear break with the culture of the Donald Trump administration, under which the use of masks was optional, and Trump himself made this clear by not wearing a mask and hosting meetings with supporters who shared his views. Science shows that masks, when used correctly, reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
Biden says his government’s decisions about the coronavirus will be based on science, not politics.
The president also intends to expand the availability of tests and vaccines, with a goal of 100 million injections in the first 100 days of his term. However, some independent experts say the Biden administration should try to make that number two or three times higher. Even with the slow pace of vaccination, the United States is already approaching a million doses delivered per day.
“It’s a disappointingly low standard,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert and an emergency physician.
When asked about the matter Thursday at the White House, Biden told a reporter: “When I announced it, you all said it is not possible. Please let’s go”.
Fauci told reporters that the United States could return “to some degree of normalcy” in the fall if the vaccination campaign goes smoothly. To achieve generalized or “herd” immunity, 280 million people would need to be vaccinated.
Biden has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to start setting up vaccination centers so that 100 are up and running in a month. He is directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin a program to make vaccines available at local pharmacies starting next month, taking advantage of a plan put in place by the Trump administration. And the president is launching a plan to train more people to apply vaccines.
The president has set a goal to reopen most schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade students in their first 100 days, and is directing the Department of Education and Health and Human Services to provide clear guidelines for reopening them. safely. States will also be able to turn to FEMA’s Disaster Assistance Fund for help in getting schools reopened.
Keeping schools and day care centers running smoothly will help reduce the drag on the US economy by making it easier for parents to return to work and for restaurants to have customers at lunchtime.
However, government officials stressed that the safe reopening of schools depends on increased testing.
Biden is giving the green light to government agencies to use the Defense Production Act that dates back to the Cold War. It allows the government to order private industry to produce necessary supplies in times of a national emergency. In this case it could be anything from swabs and masks to certain chemicals.
“We don’t have enough testing capacity in this country,” said Jeff Zients, the coordinator of the White House response to the coronavirus.
Biden’s plan estimates that a national vaccination strategy with expanded testing would need $ 160 billion, and he wants an additional $ 170 billion to help reopen schools and universities.
As part of his strategy, Biden ordered the establishment of a Task Force for Health Equity to ensure that minorities and disadvantaged communities are not excluded from the government’s response. African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have had very high rates of deaths and infections. According to polls, vaccine reluctance is highest among African-Americans, a problem the government is seeking to address through an education campaign.
Associated Press journalists Collin Binkley and Josh Boak contributed to this report.