Biden Ramps Up Covid Fight With Orders Nixing Trump Policies
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders at the White House in Washington. (Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)

Biden Ramps Up Covid Fight With Orders Nixing Trump Policies

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U.S. President Joe Biden in his first full day in office issued a sweeping set of executive orders to tackle the raging Covid-19 pandemic that will rapidly reverse or refashion many of his predecessor’s most heavily criticized policies.

Biden signed orders on Thursday designed to overhaul and unify the U.S. approach to virus testing, use federal powers to stabilize the supply chain for critical medical supplies, and boost the government’s ability to provide rapid and equitable vaccine distribution.

Biden is inheriting from former President Donald Trump a Covid testing strategy and vaccine rollout he has termed a “dismal failure.” On Thursday, he said the pandemic, which has already claimed more than 400,000 lives in the U.S., is likely to kill another 100,000 people over roughly the next month.

Biden’s Covid-19 team on Wednesday said it was confident the new president’s promise to immunize 100 million people in 100 days was achievable. But while some of the plans will be funded by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Jeff Zients, Biden’s Covid-19 task force coordinator, said it’s important for the U.S. Congress to quickly approve funding for the effort.

“What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined,” Zients said in a call with reporters on Wednesday.

Biden Ramps Up Covid Fight With Orders Nixing Trump Policies

Taken together, the orders signed by Biden seek to form a more cohesive federal response to the pandemic while increasing transparency and assuring that populations hardest hit by infections and deaths have access to testing, treatment and methods for containing cases.

”It’s a plan driven by science, data and public health, it’s not driven by politics,” Zients said. He declined to say when the vaccine would be available to the vast majority of Americans.

The Trump administration took a decentralized approach to many of the thorniest challenges of the pandemic, leaving policies on issues such as masking, vaccine distribution and testing to the states, creating an uneven patchwork of rules that at times left states competing for resources and businesses grappling with competing standards.

Biden is expanding his administration’s embrace of masking. A day after an order mandating masks be worn on federal property, Biden required masks on airplanes, trains and other modes of transportation. International travelers are also required to have a negative Covid-19 test prior to departure and to quarantine upon arrival.

The orders come the same day that U.S. infectious-disease chief Anthony Fauci pledged his country’s commitment to the World Health Organization, including membership in a global effort to deploy Covid-19 vaccines.

Fauci addressed the Geneva-based group Thursday morning, underlining Biden’s effort to mend ties with an agency crucial to fighting the pandemic. He confirmed the U.S. will join Covax, a 92-nation vaccine collaboration that the Trump administration declined to participate in.

Here’s a breakdown of the issues being addressed by the new task force:

Supply Chain

Biden has said he would invoke the Defense Production Act as needed to compel private companies to make materials needed to to help battle Covid-19. The administration has identified 12 areas where there are shortfalls that range from N95 masks to sample testing swabs to syringes, Tim Manning, Biden’s Covid-19 supply coordinator, said Wednesday.

The Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law, grants the U.S. president authority to influence domestic industry to meet the needs of national defense. Though not typically used in the health-care arena, it was invoked more than 100 times to produce hospitals supplies in the last year, Trump has said.

Trump and others on his team frequently cited the act as his administration sought to persuade Pfizer Inc. to supply another 100 million doses of the vaccine it developed with Germany’s BioNTech SE. Ultimately, that deal was clinched without the act being used, and 200 million doses of the shot is slated to be delivered in the first half of the year.

Biden officials in Wednesday’s briefing said they think they can use the act to stabilize the medical supply chain and avert bottlenecks in production of items such as pharmaceutical raw materials. The National Association of Manufacturers on Thursday said it supported Biden’s Covid-19 plans.

“A smart, targeted partnership between the administration and manufacturers can shape the use of the Defense Production Act to maximize its potential and effectiveness,” the group said in a statement.

Leveraging government purchasing power to boost protection of needs to fight the pandemic “can help us all,” the manufacturers lobbyist concluded.

Testing, Data

Another order signed Thursday creates a national testing board for a unified approach to testing and double-testing supplies.

U.S. screening infrastructure has ramped up over the past year, with almost 2 million Covid-19 tests performed each day over the last week, on average. But access remains far from easy and widespread. Laboratories still report supply shortages limiting their ability to do more testing, while test-takers confront long lines.

A comprehensive testing strategy is key to safely reopening schools and an order signed by Biden now directs federal agencies to develop a strategy to do so.

Compiling reliable statistics on virus trends and sharing them widely was a problem during the Trump administration. Another order directs federal agencies to improve data collection and reporting for high-risk populations.

Each U.S. agency, along with the U.S. Defense Department, will designate a senior official to work on COVID-19 and pandemic-related data issues.

National Guard

Biden’s executive orders also will boost reimbursement through FEMA for states that have deployed the National Guard to help respond to the pandemic.

The National Guard has helped at Covid-19 testing sites, assisted at over-run medical centers and even at prisons and distributed masks and gloves. Most recently, guard members helped states set up vaccination sites and provided logistical support, including directing traffic.

As of January 14, national guard members in 16 states and territories have helped administer vaccines.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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