The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

President Biden on Jan. 21 said help is on the way to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. (Video: The Washington Post)

A new federal strategy to tame the coronavirus pandemic focuses on trying 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.

The plan and 10 executive orders that President Biden issued Thursday 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.

Several aspects of the “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness” 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 Trump administration promised to deliver as much as 100 million coronavirus vaccine doses by the beginning of 2021. It delivered a fraction of that. (Video: The Washington Post)

These actions, dealing with the public health crisis the new president has defined as his top priority, were the subject of Biden’s central public event his first full day in office. He framed them in a tone that balanced grimness with optimism.

“It’s going to take months to turn things around,” Biden said, predicting that the virus will have killed a half-million Americans by next month. But then he added, “To a nation waiting for action, let me be clearest on this point: Help is on its way.”

The 198-page plan 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 borne out in their details and execution.

Speaking from the White House’s State Dining Room, Biden portrayed the strategy as “a wartime undertaking,” noting the coronavirus has claimed more U.S. lives in the past year than World War II.

Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert and Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, distanced himself slightly Thursday from the new administration’s depiction of fully rejecting President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic. “We’re coming with fresh ideas but also ideas that were not bad ideas from the last administration,” Fauci said, without elaborating.

Biden reiterated that his goal, set in December and written into the new plan, of giving 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office represents “one of the greatest operational challenges our nation has ever undertaken.” But The Washington Post’s tracking of vaccinations shows that the pace needed to meet the goal — 1 million doses administered per day — was already achieved Thursday and four other times in the previous 10 days.

Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus response, said the plan 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 came as the pandemic has killed more than 408,000 Americans since it was first detected in the country a year ago.

At the end of his first afternoon in office on Wednesday, the president signed three other executive orders relating to the pandemic. The flurry of actions over the two days serves 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 Trump signed his first night in office that sought to weaken the Affordable Care Act.

As he has said before of his pandemic approach, Biden characterized the national strategy document as apolitical. In an implicit contrast with Trump’s handling of the health crisis, he said it “is comprehensive, it’s based on science not politics, it’s based on truth not denial.”

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 is 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.

One of Thursday’s orders gives 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.

And the strategy folds in a decision Biden announced earlier 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 was expected 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 also signed an executive order intended to provide 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, which is needed for remote learning.

For travel, the president signed 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, and to quarantine once they arrive. Masks will be required in domestic airports.

Other actions Thursday formalized the creation of a health equity task force to help devote more aid 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.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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