Jan. 21, 2021 -- On his first full day in office, President Joe Biden continued to move quickly, issuing a new raft of executive orders and directives aimed at stopping the coronavirus pandemic.
His first executive order, signed Wednesday, requires everyone on federal land or property, including office buildings, to wear masks and to practice social distancing. The order applies to visitors, federal employees, and federal contractors.
"This executive action will direct the agencies to take action to require compliance with CDC guidance on mask wearing and physical distancing in federal buildings, on federal lands, and by federal employees and contractors," Jeff Zients, who will be the Biden administration's COVID-19 response coordinator, told CNN.
"And the president will call on governors, public health officials, mayors, business leaders, and others to implement masking, physical distancing, and other public measures to control COVID-19," he said.
Today, Biden will order federal agencies to use the Defense Production Act to speed the manufacturing and delivery of equipment and supplies, including N95 masks, gowns, gloves, testing equipment, and other equipment.
In other moves Thursday, Biden:
- Ordered that states and territories be reimbursed for 100% of the cost of having the National Guard help with testing and vaccine deployment. States previously were shouldering 25% of those costs.
- Created a COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board with the goals of greatly increasing the number of COVID-19 tests done daily, manufacturing more tests and supplies in the U.S., and supporting testing in schools and underserved communities.
- Signed an order to encourage large-scale randomized trials to find new treatments for COVID-19, and to outline ways to improve treatment now.
- Will sign an executive order to boost the country’s collection, production, sharing, and analysis of data “to support an equitable COVID-19 response and recovery,” the White House said. As part of that order, the U.S. will create online dashboards for the public to see national and state-by-state-level data on cases, testing, vaccinations, and hospital admissions with real-time updates.
These new orders follow Biden’s moves Tuesday to launch his goal of vaccinating 100 million people in the first 100 days of his term. He ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create federally supported community vaccination centers, with the goal of opening 100 in the next month. The CDC, too, was ordered to launch a federal pharmacy program to make vaccines available in local drugstores in February.
The new president has also made it a priority for the nation’s public schools to reopen as soon as possible. Biden later clarified that the goal is limited to students in kindergarten through the eighth grade, with the goal of having students in classrooms within 100 days. To help make that happen, Biden has ordered the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to advise school districts, child care providers, and colleges and universities on best practices to open safely.
The agencies will provide data on openings and closures to help local school officials make decisions. The Trump administration did not kept track of how many schools or school districts are open for in-person classes, and a Biden spokesperson told The Washington Post the new administration will work to improve data collection.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s inauguration, Biden also announced a $1.9 trillion plan to alter the course of the pandemic, and he announced the experts, many world-renowned, that he has tapped to lead that effort.
Biden took office on the first anniversary of the first U.S. case of the coronavirus infection being discovered. Since then, more than 24 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University, and more than 400,000 have died.
Biden said science will play a starring role in his administration. “We are going to lead with science and truth,” then President-elect Biden said on Jan. 16 while he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris announced key members of the science team. “We believe in both. This is how we are going to, God willing, overcome the pandemic and build our country back to better than it was before.”
Public health and other experts are applauding his choices, especially the decision to elevate the position of director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to Cabinet-level. Established by Congress in 1976, the OSTP is meant to provide the president and others with advice on a host of topics: the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of the economy, national security, homeland security, health, foreign relations, the environment, and the technological recovery and use of resources.
Eric Lander, PhD, is Biden’s nominee for the OSTP director, an office now elevated to the higher position after years of what Biden considers a too-low profile. Lander was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project, credited with helping develop ways to discover the molecular basis of disease. He is also president and founder of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a renowned nonprofit biomedical research institute. During the Obama administration, Lander was co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Francis Collins, MD, will remain as the director of the National Institutes of Health, a position he’s held since 2009 after a long tenure at the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. He will continue to play a pivotal role in the response to the pandemic.
At the science team announcement, Biden told his nominees that he is asking them to focus on five areas:
- The pandemic and what we can do to address public health needs.
- The economy and how to rebuild it better to ensure prosperity for all.
- How science can help us confront the climate crisis.
- How to lead the world in technologies and industries critical for future prosperity.
- How to ensure long-term health and trust in science and technology in our nation.
In announcing the science team, Biden said: “These are among the brightest, most dedicated people not only in the country, but the world.”
Biden signed more than a dozen executive orders shortly after taking office, including a commitment to rejoin the Paris climate accord. The international treaty has a goal of limiting global warming. As president, Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement. Biden also blocked Trump’s plan to leave the World Health Organization.
Biden’s team will not just focus on the pandemic. Addressing cancer will be a key priority for Biden and Harris -- a political and personal issue for both. It’s expected to be a signature issue for the incoming first lady, Jill Biden. Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer at age 46, in 2015. Joe Biden headed the Cancer Moonshot, a national effort to end cancer, when he was vice president under Obama.
Biden’s efforts in cancer research and treatment drew appreciation from Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
In a statement, she said: “President-Elect Biden -- like many Americans -- has a deep personal connection to cancer that spurs his strong commitment to biomedical research. Specifically, the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which he spearheaded, continues to be an incredible source of opportunity and new discovery for cancer researchers across the country. With an estimated 1.9 million people expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, the need to work with President-elect Biden and his administration to see what we can do together to accelerate the pace, progress and equitable access to cancer research and innovations is urgent.”
Science and Medicine for All
As the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, the issue of distrust of the vaccine by some people of color is often discussed, with some public health experts wondering if Biden’s efforts will be adequately tailored to meet the needs of those groups.
But Gary Puckrein, PhD, president of the National Minority Quality Forum, a nonprofit research and education organization devoted to ending health disparities, sees it in a more positive light. “I think he’s put together an amazing team,” he says. “He has chosen people who have dedicated their life to science.” While he acknowledges that distrust exists in minority communities, he also says: “We have to take the vaccine. We have to bring the virus under control. The only way we do that is to take the vaccine.”
Despite the distrust, Puckrein says, “Everything I see about this administration says to me that he is making an effort to create a community that is safe for everybody.”
Biden has also named Yale researcher Marcella Nunez-Smith to lead a new task force on racial disparities in health care, including the COVID pandemic.
A Washington Post analysis of federal data from March to October found that after controlling for age, sex, and mortality rates over time, Black Americans were 37% more likely to die of COVID-19 than whites; Asians, 53% more likely to die; Native Americans and Alaska Natives, 26% more likely to die; and Hispanics, 16% more likely to die.
The panel’s work will continue after the pandemic as the Infectious Disease Racial Disparities Task Force.