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Biden lays out plan to combat covid in first 100 days, including requiring masks on interstate buses, trains

President-elect Joe Biden on Dec. 8 introduced his plan to complete “100 million covid vaccine shots” in his first 100 days in office. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday laid out a three-point plan to begin defeating the coronavirus pandemic during his first 100 days in office, saying he will sign an executive order the day he is sworn in to require Americans to wear masks on buses and trains crossing state lines, as well as in federal buildings.

Biden also pledged to distribute “at least 100 million covid vaccine shots” during that time, singling out educators, who he said should get shots “as soon as possible” after they are given first to health workers and people who live and work in long-term-care facilities under current plans. He did not specify whether he meant 100 million doses or vaccinating that many people; the two vaccines nearing approval both require two doses.

The other goal of his 100-day plan, Biden said, is to enable “the majority of our schools” to reopen within that time and to remain open. He called on Congress to devote the funding needed to make it safe for students and teachers to return to classrooms.

The president-elect set out these initial priorities for the pandemic he regards as his top priority in remarks in Wilmington, Del., during which he introduced six members of the team he has chosen to lead the government’s response and to pursue other changes to the nation’s health-care system.

They include California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), his nominee as secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services — a former 12-term House member who is the first Latino and the first top state legal official ever chosen for that role.

Biden has said often and urgently that Americans should wear masks, and he reiterated Tuesday that he would work with mayors and governors, encouraging them to impose mandates for face coverings in their jurisdictions. But his remarks were the first time he committed to signing an executive order to require masks “wherever possible” in venues under federal authority.

His vaccine goal came a day after The Washington Post reported that federal officials may be unable buy more than their first 100 million vaccine doses from Pfizer and BioNTech, the drug companies whose vaccine is first in line for federal clearance, until late June or July because other countries have been buying it. Like Pfizer, Moderna has already contracted to deliver its first 100 million doses to the U.S. government. Doses of both vaccines will become available as soon as they are cleared by federal regulators.

Biden did not specifically address the possibility that fewer doses may be available for the first months of next year than has been anticipated.

He acknowledged that those actions will not end the pandemic, saying “we will still have much to do in the year ahead, and sadly, much difficulty, too. We will be far, far from done.

“Yet,” he said, “it is possible that after 100 days, we will be much farther along in the fight against the pandemic.”

Biden’s appearance at the Queen auditorium was the third Tuesday in a row on which he used the stage to introduce his nascent team. But this was the first time he broached specific policies — one indication of the primacy with which he regards controlling the escalating pandemic, which has infected more than 15 million people in the United States and killed over 285,000.

Biden called covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, “a mass casualty event,” pointing out that, for last week, it was the nation’s leading cause of death.

The president-elect portrayed the half-dozen appointees for senior roles in the White House and at HHS as “world-class experts at the top of their fields. Crisis tested.” And he said his administration will accelerate testing for the virus, improve the supply chain to provide protective gear and distribute the vaccine that is on the cusp of becoming available to the first members of the public.

Health policy and public health specialists regard Becerra and others on the team as talented and skillful, but not entirely steeped in what one called “boots-on-the-ground experience” running a complex health-care organization.

In addition to Becerra, Biden introduced Jeff Zients, co-chairman of his presidential transition and a former leader of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, as the White House’s coordinator of the pandemic response. Vivek H. Murthy, a co-chair of the transition’s covid-19 advisory board, will return as surgeon general, a role he held during the latter part of Obama’s tenure and the first months of the Trump administration.

Rochelle Walensky, an infectious-disease specialist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, will be the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Marcella Nunez-Smith, another co-chair of the advisory board, will lead a covid-19 equity task force to focus on the disproportionate impact the virus has had on racial and ethnic minorities.

The president-elect also introduced a familiar figure who is remaining in the job he has held for nearly four decades: Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is adding to his title chief medical adviser on covid-19.

Becerra will be the only one of those to require Senate confirmation — and he is already being targeted by some Republicans who question his qualifications and his previous support for a single-payer health-care system called Medicare-for-all.

The Biden transition and others close to Becerra have been working hard to play up his long-standing commitment to improving access to affordable health care as a senior House member and as attorney general of the nation’s most populous state.

In his current role since 2017, Becerra has led the Democratic opposition to a lawsuit attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act. His office has focused on Medicaid fraud and won a major settlement against a large health system it accused of anti-competitive practices. In an unusual twist in which California’s attorney general can sponsor state legislation, he was behind a successful recent bill that deters pharmaceutical companies from blocking lower-price generic drugs.

In the House for two dozen years, Becerra sat on the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over large government health insurance programs, and took a leading role in promoting the ACA and fighting Republican efforts to repeal the law. But he was known on Capitol Hill more for his interest in immigration policy than health care.

“Becerra’s a bright guy. I’m not arguing that,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a physician. “But that’s not to say he knows anything about health care.”

Speaking by video during the event, Becerra said HHS’s mission “has never been as vital or as urgent as it is today. . . . Tackling the pandemic, saving lives, keeping us healthy should be our calling card.”

Matt Viser and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

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