Biden to issue orders nixing Trump's Covid-19 policies

Biden to issue orders nixing Trump's Covid-19 policies

US President Joe Biden signs an executive order on Covid-19 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC on Wednesday. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)
US President Joe Biden signs an executive order on Covid-19 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC on Wednesday. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)

US President Joe Biden in his first full day in office plans to issue 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 criticised policies.

Mr Biden Thursday is set to invoke orders to overhaul and unify the US approach to virus testing, use federal powers to stabilise the supply chain for critical medical supplies, and boost the government’s ability to provide rapid and equitable vaccine distribution, according to a Biden administration briefing.

Mr Biden is inheriting from former President Donald Trump a Covid-testing strategy and vaccine rollout he has called a “dismal failure”, and he has warned there will be no quick fixes for ending the crisis.

On Wednesday, though, members of his Covid-19 team outlined a strategy using all levers of the federal government to attack the pandemic, starting with 10 executive orders.

The team said it was confident that Mr Biden’s promise to immunise 100 million people in 100 days could be achieved. 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 US Congress to quickly approve funding for the effort.

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

While the Biden team promised to produce more vaccine supply as well as places for people to be immunised, Mr Zients declined to say when the vaccine would be available to the vast majority of Americans.

Federal response

Taken together, the orders planned by Mr 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,” Mr Zients said.​

The Trump administration took a decentralised 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.

Health departments, already stretched thin from responding to the pandemic, are struggling to fairly and efficiently administer vaccines. The decision by some states to expand vaccinations to those 65 and older has overwhelmed vaccine centres.

More than 16 million vaccines have been administered in the US, marking 52% of the shots distributed to states, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.

Mr Biden also plans to expand his administration’s embrace of masking.

A day after an order mandating masks be worn on federal property, the administration also will require masks on aeroplanes, trains and other modes of transportation. International travelers will also be required to have a negative Covid-19 test prior to departure and to quarantine upon arrival.

The new orders come the same day that US 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.

Dr Fauci addressed the Geneva-based group Thursday morning, underlining Mr Biden’s effort to mend ties with an agency crucial to fighting the pandemic.

He confirmed that the U.S. will join Covax, a 92-nation vaccine collaboration that the Trump administration declined to participate in.

On the supply chain, Mr 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 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 US president authority to influence domestic industry to meet the needs of national defence.

Though not typically used in the healthcare arena, it was invoked more than 100 times to produce hospitals supplies in the last year, Mr Trump has said.

Mr 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.

Though Mr Trump often threatened using the act, he more often used the threat to prod companies into action without actually invoking it.

Biden officials in a briefing with reporters Wednesday said they think they can use the act to stabilise the medical supply chain and avert bottlenecks in the production of items such as pharmaceutical raw materials.

In terms of testing approach, one of the orders Thursday will create a national testing board for a unified approach to testing and double-testing supplies.

US 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 one of Mr Biden’s orders directs federal agencies to develop a strategy to do so.

Compiling reliable statistics on virus trends and sharing them widely was also a problem during the Trump administration. One of Mr Biden’s orders will direct federal agencies to improve data collection and reporting for high-risk populations.

Mr Biden’s executive orders will boost reimbursement 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 centres 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 Jan 14, national guard members in 16 states and territories have helped administer vaccines.

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