Election 2020 Politics

Biden says death toll from pandemic likely will top 500,000 next month, says it will take months ‘for us to turn things around’

This is a developing story. It will be updated.

President Biden plans Thursday to issue a new national strategy to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and to take executive actions intended to make tests and vaccines more abundant, schools and travel safer, and states better able to afford their role in the long road back to normal life.

For months, the Trump administration promised to deliver as much as 100 million coronavirus vaccine doses by the new year. It delivered a fraction of that. (The Washington Post)

On his second day in office, aides said, Biden will sign an additional 10 executive orders, plus presidential memorandums, dealing with many aspects of the public health crisis the new president has defined as his top priority.

They include the creation of a Pandemic Testing Board that can spur a “surge” in the capacity for coronavirus tests. Other orders will foster research into new treatments for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus; strengthen the collection and analysis of data to shape the government’s response to the crisis; and direct the federal occupational safety agency to release and enforce guidelines to protect workers from getting infected.

Other aspects of the plan are intended to steer more money to states, which have complained they need more funding to carry out the work placed on them for testing, vaccinating residents and other functions.

The plan says the White House will try to persuade Congress to cover the entire cost for states to vaccinate low-income residents on Medicaid, while directing health officials to explore whether the program’s payment rates for vaccinations should be higher.

The 21-page executive summary — a full 200-page plan will be released Thursday — is far from a federal takeover of the nation’s efforts to cope with the worst health calamity in a century. Yet it represents a pronounced shift away from the Trump administration’s deference to each state to design its own plan for coronavirus testing and carry out other elements of its response.

The replacement plan synthesizes many of the goals and strategies for fighting the coronavirus that Biden has mapped out in the weeks and days leading to his inauguration, including in a $1.9 trillion request to Congress for these efforts and to hasten the nation’s economic recovery. Many represent promises whose success or failure will be born in their details and execution.

Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus response, said the plan is a “culmination of months of effort . . . to create a comprehensive strategy that will fundamentally change the course of this pandemic.” He said it was the product of conversations with medical and scientific experts and interest groups, along with state and local leaders. Many of the goals — though not all — will require Congress to provide more funding, Zients said.

Biden’s actions Thursday will come on the second day of his fledgling presidency as he seeks to put his stamp on the government’s approach to defeating the pandemic that has killed more than 404,000 Americans and infected more than 24 million since it was first detected in the country a year ago.

At the end of his first afternoon in office, the president signed three other executive orders relating to the coronavirus pandemic. They require Americans to wear masks and keep safe distances on federal property and under other limited circumstances, halt the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization and re-create a White House unit on global health security and biodefense disbanded a few years ago.

The flurry of actions Wednesday and Thursday serve a substantive and symbolic purpose for the new White House, illustrating in concrete terms that Biden’s approach to the pandemic is different from his predecessor’s.

His first-day executive orders — the three dealing with the public health crisis and 14 on other issues — compare with one that President Donald Trump signed his first night in office that sought to weaken the Affordable Care Act.

During a briefing about the new national strategy, Zients characterized it as “driven by science, data and public health. It is not driven by politics” — echoing a Biden refrain about his approach to the pandemic.

The first of seven broad goals in the plan is to “restore trust with the American people.” Zients pledged that the new administration will hold regular briefings with government scientists, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Trump administration marginalized the CDC for much of the past year.

Another executive order will be intended to improve federal agencies’ collection of data, including to help make sure the government directs enough help to racial and ethnic groups that have suffered especially severe consequences from the pandemic. More of this data will be shared publicly, Zients said.

Aides said Biden intends to give governors more help by directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay states more for using members of the National Guard and for supplies, such as protective gear for schools and child-care providers.

As Biden announced in a vaccine plan last week, the government will help create mass vaccination sites, including in stadiums, gyms and community centers. Similarly, the plan envisions a program to build the public health workforce to help with testing, contact tracing and vaccination.

The strategy also incorporates the vaccine plan’s call for greater use of the Defense Production Act, a decades-old law giving the government power to boost manufacturing during wars or other national emergencies. The idea is to help produce supplies to expedite vaccine production, such as glass vials, stoppers, syringes and packaging. Trump officials insisted they also used the law, and it is not clear exactly how the new administration will change that.

The strategy also folds in a decision Biden announced this month to distribute most vaccine doses as they are made, rather than holding back significant reserves for the second doses required for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Those are the two companies whose coronavirus vaccines have received federal permission for emergency use.

Biden has set a goal for most K-8 schools to be open within his first 100 days, but his aides have not explained how they measure school opening or what portion of schools are open today. By some estimates, a majority of schools are already open.

He plans to issue a presidential memorandum Thursday, allowing FEMA to reimburse expenses for emergency supplies to reopen schools, including personal protective gear or cleaning materials, officials said. They did not specify how much money would be available from FEMA. Last week, Biden asked Congress for $130 billion to cover a range of school reopening expenses as part of his larger relief package.

The president is also signing an executive order directing the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to issue guidance to help schools, child-care providers and higher education operate safely. The White House plan calls for an expansion of coronavirus testing in schools, to try to give teachers and parents more confidence in reopening buildings. Still, this executive order will encourage the Federal Communications Commission to increase support for students who lack reliable Internet service at home, needed for remote learning.

For travel, the president plans to sign an executive order requiring masks to be worn in airports and international travelers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding planes to the United States.

Other actions Thursday will formalize the creation of a health equity task force to help devote more help and money to underserved communities where covid-19 infections and deaths have taken a disproportionately high toll. Another presidential directive is designed to strengthen the nation’s work with other countries in fighting the pandemic and future global health threats.

The vow to provide greater support for states is a response to months of assertions that they lacked adequate direction and money from the government. State and municipal health officials said they welcomed a more robust federal role in carrying out vaccinations and were optimistic the new administration would communicate with them more clearly.

Chicago’s public health commissioner, Allison Arwady, said conflicting statements about vaccine distribution by the outgoing and incoming administrations forced her to lower expectations about how many people could be vaccinated quickly.

“It’s been a struggle these last couple weeks with all of the different messaging,” Arwady said.

Stephen L. Williams, director of the Houston Health Department, said he was particularly encouraged by the promise of federally supported mass vaccination sites, which he said could resemble testing locations.

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