Coronavirus: Joe Biden signs executive actions aimed at ending pandemic

Daniel Strauss in Washington, Joanna Walters in New York and agencies
·5 min read

Joe Biden signed another set of executive actions on Thursday, his first full day in the White House, aimed at making good on his plans to use the might of the federal government to end the coronavirus pandemic.

His administration plans a coordinated federal response aimed at restoring trust in the government and focused on boosting vaccines, increasing testing, reopening schools and addressing inequalities thrown up by the disease.

“We can and will beat Covid-19. America deserves a response to the Covid-19 pandemic that is driven by science, data and public health – not politics,” the White House said in a statement outlining the administration’s national strategy.

That strategy is based on seven major goals: restoring public trust in government efforts; getting more vaccine doses into more arms; mitigating the spread – including mask mandates; emergency economic relief; a strategy to get schools running and workers back to work; establishing an equity taskforce to address disparities in suffering involving issues of race, ethnicity and geography; and preparing for future threats.

Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days and reverse the impact of a year of mismanaged response under Donald Trump that saw more than 400,000 people die and more than 24 million infected – by far the worst rates in the world.

More than 4,200 people died of coronavirus in the US on Wednesday, the second-highest daily total of an outbreak whose first confirmed case was announced exactly a year ago.

But the executive orders go far beyond vaccination efforts.

On Thursday, Biden announced increased travel restrictions for global flyers.

“In light of the new Covid-19 variants,” he said, international travelers flying to the US “will need to test before they get on that plane ... and quarantine when they arrive in America”.

The president plans to re-engage with the World Health Organization, a reversal from the Trump administration’s move to cut ties. Biden is also starting a White House Covid-19 response team.

Anthony Fauci, the key public health official dealing with the pandemic for the Trump administration and now for Biden’s, made a speech to the World Health Organization pre-dawn on Thursday after being chosen to head the US delegation to the global health group, in one of the first acts of the Biden presidency.

Fauci said letters had been delivered to the group to formally retract the process of US withdrawal from the WHO that Trump had announced last May after declaring it was too “China-centric” and disproportionately funded by the US to no benefit.

“I am honored to announce the US will remain a member of the WHO. The US also intends to fulfill its financial obligations to the organization,” Fauci said.

Related: Joe Biden reverses anti-immigrant Trump policies hours after swearing-in

In a Good Morning America interview on Thursday morning, Fauci said “it was really a very good day” as the US recommitted to the WHO, disengagement from which, he said, other countries and health officials in the US alike had found “very disconcerting”.

He said he was “fairly confident” that the US could reach its 100-day vaccinations goal.

The Biden administration plans to partner with states and local governments to set up community vaccination centers at stadiums, gymnasiums and conference centers.

The president called the Trump White House’s vaccine distribution and administration plan “a dismal failure” after the federal government badly missed its own stated goal to vaccinate 20m Americans by the end of 2020. It reached only about 10% of its goal.

The Trump administration’s vaccine distribution plan was “nonexistent”, forcing Biden’s nascent administration to start ‘from scratch, according to a report from CNN citing unnamed sources.

The administration will staff new sites with personnel from federal agencies as well as first responders and medical personnel serving in the military. The government plans to partner with federally qualified health centers to help reach under-served communities to distribute vaccines; mobile clinics will also be set up.

To expand vaccine distribution, the Biden administration plans to discontinue the Trump administration’s policy of “holding back significant levels of doses”. More states will be urged to encourage vaccinations.

Biden has issued an executive order setting up a Covid-19 pandemic testing board. The idea is for the board to offer a “clear, unified approach to testing”, according to Biden administration officials.

And the president signed another executive order to make testing for the virus free for Americans who don’t have health coverage and offer ways some of the most vulnerable can get help.

Another executive order requires people to wear a mask on trains, airplanes and maritime vessels.

Biden also plans to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) disaster relief fund to provide reimbursement for personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning and costs needed to safely reopen schools.

The administration is looking to fix supply shortfalls and will require federal agencies to use the Defense Production Act, a measure allowing the government to mobilize companies to expand production of essential equipment.

Biden will restore a White House team on global health risks set up under Barack Obama and dismantled under Trump.

The executive orders aim to help people of color in particular. One will set up a Covid-19 health equity taskforce.

Biden will issue an order to develop a national strategy to reopen schools, hoping to meet his goal of having most elementary and middle schools open within his first 100 days in office, and will ask Congress to provide $130bn additional aid to schools, $35bn for colleges and universities, $25bn for childcare centers at risk of closing and $15bn in childcare aid for struggling families.