Biden Comes Out Swinging With Flood Of Actions Reshaping Fed Role In COVID Response

President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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January 21, 2021 7:00 a.m.
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The Biden administration came out swinging in the early hours of the new President’s tenure with a flood of executive orders and other actions focused on confronting the pandemic.

In a press call Wednesday evening with several leaders of Biden’s coronavirus response, including COVID Czar Jeff Zients, the focus was largely on getting vaccines into arms, and quickly.

New federal role in vaccine distribution

In a sense, everything else on Biden’s vaccine agenda flows from this promise. The strategy commits the Biden administration to use the vast resources of the federal government in a way that Trump did not when it unceremoniously dumped vaccine shipments on unprepared and underfunded states.

For Biden, this will mean using federal personnel to create new vaccination sites around the country.

“We will create community vaccination centers in stadiums, gymnasiums,” and other locations, said vaccine coordinator Bechara Choucair, adding that they’d be staffed by federal employees.

Choucair added that the Biden administration would only “hold back a small reserve” of additional doses and instead ship out the vast majority of doses to the states as they become available.

100 million commitment

This is all in furtherance of one initial goal: injecting 100 million initial doses into American arms from Jan. 20 to April 30 — the first 100 days of Biden’s administration.

Biden has ordered FEMA to set up 100 federally supported vaccination centers over the next month, while the CDC is launching a program to make vaccines available at local pharmacies.

Meeting this goal — which Couchair described as “ambitious” — will also see Biden activate the U.S. Public Health Services Commissioned Corps. One legislative proposal on the President’s agenda would see the government create a 100,000-person strong “public health jobs corps” to help staff the vaccine rollout and boost public health capacity around the country.

Whether the goal of 100 million shots is as ambitious as the Biden team says remains to be seen. It would mean vaccinations at a rate of 1 million doses delivered per day. The U.S. has been vaccinating around 750,000 people daily, according to recent tallies.

Distribution guidelines for states

Much of the confusion around the vaccine rollout under Trump was due to conflicting guidelines between the states for who should get vaccinated when.

The Biden administration wants to take steps toward smoothing out the differences.

“We will call for states to allow more people to get vaccinated,” Couchair said.

The main aim will be opening up vaccine availability to all Americans aged 65 and older, as well as to frontline medical staff and essential workers like teachers and grocery store employees.

“More people, more places, more supply,” Couchair said, summing up the Biden team’s view of its vaccination strategy.

Invoking the Defense Production Act

Tying it all together is a focus on the Defense Production Act, a 1950s-era law that empowers the federal government to compel the production of items needed to address a national emergency.

The Trump administration inexplicably failed to use this tool on a mass scale, leaving vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer without access to key raw materials as PPE shortages continue months into the pandemic.

“Where we can produce more, we will,” said Tim Manning, COVID-19 supply coordinator.

Manning said that the effort would focus on creating more N95 and “high-quality surgical masks,” as well as isolation gowns, testing materials, and vaccine production elements.

He added that the government would take an inventory “of what we have on hand, what’s needed across America to respond to the pandemic, and what we need to do to fill those gaps.”

Manning went on to say that the effort would expand production to meet the higher needs imposed by the pandemic, but would ideally “sustain the U.S. production of these items so we’re more prepared for future pandemics.”

A national testing plan

While the administration is focused on vaccine distribution, several officials on Wednesday’s call voiced frustration with the existing testing situation in the United States, as well as with the nature of the data sharing from the previous administration.

“What we’re inheriting from the Trump administration is so much worse than we could have imagined,” Zients said at one point in Wednesday’s call.

However, one thing is clear: The Biden team wants to expand testing, and, in contrast with the Trump administration’s repeated effort to pass responsibility to ill-equipped states, the new administration is willing to use the federal government’s resources.

To that end, Biden will sign an executive order Thursday to establish a National Pandemic Testing Board to oversee the national response.

“The federal government will expand the rapid testing supply and double test supplies and increase testing capacity,” a national strategy document from the White House read.

“The Administration will also increase onshore test manufacturing, fill testing supply shortfalls, enhance laboratory capacity to conduct testing over the short- and long-term, and expand surveillance for hotspots and variants,” the document added.

Reopening schools, testing travelers

The surge in tests will be crucial in reopening schools, COVID-19 testing coordinator Carole Johnson said Wednesday.

The administration wants the majority of K-8 schools open within 100 days of Biden taking office, Johnson said. And one of Biden’s orders Thursday will instruct the departments of Education and Health & Human Services to provide guidance for schools to reach that goal.

Another presidential memorandum will provide for FEMA reimbursement for PPE, cleaning, and other costs for school reopening, Johnson said.

Biden will keep in place travel restrictions from Europe and Brazil that Trump moved to lift in his final day in office. In addition, Johnson said, negative tests will be required of travelers to the United States prior to their departure.

‘Scientifically accurate information’

Speaking more generally at one point in the call, Zients stressed that the administration would try to maintain transparency with regard to the pandemic, holding regular briefings with experts including Anthony Fauci and others.

The administration will also establish a Health Equity Task Force — chaired by COVID-19 Task Force Co-Chair Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith — that tracks discrepancies in the disease’s impact by geography, race and other factors.

“The federal government should be the source of truth for the public to get clear, accessible and scientifically-accurate information about COVID-19,” Zients said. “We will be honest, transparent and straightforward with the American people to rebuild that trust.”

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

TPM’s COVID-19 hub.
Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.
COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).
Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).
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