On his first two days in office, President Joe Biden signed 10 executive orders to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, mandating masks on public transportation and directing agencies to use wartime powers to require U.S. companies to make N95 masks, swabs and other equipment.
The president's plan emphasizes ramping up testing for the coronavirus, accelerating the pace of vaccinations and providing more funding and direction to state and local officials, according to a copy of it released Thursday. A key component of the plan is restoring trust with the American public. It also focuses on vaccinating more people, safely reopening schools, businesses and travel as well as slowing the spread of the virus.
"For the past year, we couldn't rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination we needed. And we have seen the tragic cost of that failure: 3,000-to-4,000 deaths per day," Biden said Thursday afternoon before signing eight of the ten executive orders. Two of them were signed Wednesday. "American hospitals are out of beds. Businesses are closed for good. Schools are caught in between. And while the vaccine provides so much hope, the rollout has been a dismal failure thus far."
Biden has taken office at a pivotal moment in the pandemic. Nearly 3,000 Americans are dying every day of Covid-19, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and newly discovered strains that are more contagious are establishing footholds in the U.S., threatening to push the nation's outbreak to even more deadly heights. The plan released Thursday expands on initiatives outlined last week and details how Biden plans to bring the outbreak under control and help the country recover.
But in unveiling the plan Thursday, Biden warned that the outbreak will get worse before it gets better. He said the U.S. death toll will likely top 500,000 next month and will take months to turn around.
"We didn't get into this mess overnight," he said. "We will get through this. We will defeat this pandemic. And to a nation waiting for action, let me be the clearest on this point, help is on the way."
Here are the executive orders Biden signed in his first two days in office to tackle the pandemic:
Hours after being sworn in as the 46th president on Wednesday, Biden signed more than a dozen executive actions in the Oval Office, including one requiring masks on federal property.
The president said Thursday he will also call on governors, local health officials, mayors and business leaders to encourage mask wearing and social distancing.
Biden is also requiring masks on public transportation, including trains, buses and aircraft. International travelers will need to present a negative Covid-19 test before entering the U.S. and will have to quarantine upon arrival. The executive order also directs other agencies to expand public health measures for domestic travel and cross-border land and sea travel.
Biden also directed agencies to use the Defense Production Act to compel companies to make supplies needed to combat the pandemic. That could include protective equipment like masks as well as supplies needed for Covid-19 tests and to administer vaccines. The Trump administration invoked the act last year to get U.S. manufacturers to make ventilators and other supplies.
The executive order, called "A Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain," also directs "the development of a new Pandemic Supply Chain Resilience Strategy" in an effort to bolster domestic manufacturing of critical supplies.
"It's past time to fix America's COVID-response supply shortage problems for good," Biden's plan says.
The administration is also seeking to accelerate the rollout of vaccines by providing more funding to local and state officials, creating more vaccination sites and launching a national public education campaign. The plan says the administration will also "surge the health care workforce to support the vaccination effort," which could include waiving some licensing requirements, for example.
Biden previously announced that his administration will aim to administer 100 million vaccine shots in its first 100 days. Jeff Zients, Biden's coordinator for the Covid response, said on a conference call Wednesday evening that that's just the beginning.
"We feel confident that we can meet our 100 million shots in 100 days," Zients said. "But that is really just the start of where we need to be. 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."
Biden will direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up 100 community vaccination centers in the next month as part of that effort. Similar to the Trump administration, Biden's plan will also encourage states to move quickly to expand the groups eligible to receive the vaccine.
To bolster trust in the government's response, the White House is establishing a "COVID-19 Response Office," charged with coordinating the pandemic response across federal agencies and establishing clear lines of communication down to local officials. The federal government will also conduct regular, expert-led briefings, the plan says.
Biden signed another executive order directing the response office and all federal agencies to improve federal data collection and sharing. It directs the CDC to publish a dashboard showing Covid-19 cases at the county level, "so that Americans can gauge the level of transmission in their own communities to make their own informed choices," the plan says.
Even as the vaccination effort gains speed, the plan calls for continued research into treatments for Covid, especially antivirals like Gilead's remdesivir. Through an executive order called "Improving and Expanding Access to Care and Treatment for COVID-19," Biden established a new drug discovery and development program that emphasizes diversity in clinical trials.
That order also expanded programs designed to support patients recovering from Covid-19, the plan says, and increased the health-care workforce capacity.
In addition to new drugs, Biden's plan also places a renewed emphasis more testing. The president established a new pandemic testing board to discover new kinds of effective and rapid tests and scale them up quickly.
"To control the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopen schools and businesses, America must have wide-spread testing," the plan says.
The federal government will also provide guidance to schools, businesses and other congregate settings on how to best use widespread testing to slow the spread of the virus and cut off chains of transmission, according to the plan.
Safely reopening schools and businesses is a key component of the plan. Biden signed an order on Thursday that directs the Department of Health and Human Services to collect data on school reopenings and the spread of Covid, allowing for more scientific research into the risk of putting kids back in schools.
The new plan also calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take on a larger role, setting clear guidance to employers on safe workplace practices and enforcement.
"For the millions of workers, many of whom are people of color, immigrants and low-wage workers who continue to put their lives on the line to keep this country going through the pandemic, I'm calling for the enforcement of more stringent worker safety standards," Biden said Thursday.
And Biden, through another order, also established a "COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force" to ensure vaccines, treatments, masks and other resources reach everyone, including harder hit communities of color that have suffered from disproportionately high death rates in the U.S.
The plan does not lay out an estimated cost, but the administration proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package last week. The proposal, called the American Rescue Plan, includes $350 billion in state and local government aid, $170 billion for K-12 schools and institutions of higher education, $50 billion toward Covid testing and $20 billion toward a national vaccine program.
"We need the money from Congress to fund the national strategy," Zients said.