The United States is not where it was at the beginning of the pandemic, when Biden’s plan might have prevented us from passing one tragic milestone after another. Now, we are in a race against time, with the arrival of even more contagious variants coming on top of high baselines of infection. The steps that would have worked months ago are not nearly enough now; this is the time for much more aggressive federal action.
Let’s start with one of Biden’s first acts, the signing of an executive order to mandate masks in federal buildings. To be sure, this is a dramatic change from former president Donald Trump’s maskless parties in the White House. This order, combined with the subsequent executive orders signed Thursday to require masks on much interstate travel, will protect many Americans and send an unequivocal message that the new administration is following public health guidance.
But if the evidence is clear that masks save lives, why isn’t Biden issuing a full-on national mask mandate? Some have said any rules that reach beyond federal buildings and interstate commerce will face court challenges. Issuing a national mandate is the clearest signal that the country is in crisis; this very powerful tool must be used. And I believe that Biden can get around the issue of mandates being a state prerogative by tying federal funding to masking requirements. This will force governors’ hands: They can issue statewide mandates or forgo federal funds.
Here’s another bold measure: Biden needs to strongly and clearly call on all Americans to avoid indoor social gatherings. In many parts of the country, these informal gatherings of people who don’t live in the same household are driving surges in covid-19. Other countries with similar coronavirus case levels have issued national lockdowns that don’t just forbid indoor get-togethers, but also shutter businesses and prevent people from traveling outside their home area. Officials in Britain, for example, rely on community members reporting on one another, and financial penalties are issued somewhat like traffic tickets. I’ve argued before that such lockdowns are not politically feasible here, but we do need urgent change to curb transmission.
Biden needs to let Americans know that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. If we want kids back in school, we need to stop playdates. If we want to keep businesses open, we can’t dine inside one another’s homes. An outright ban on informal gatherings would be hard to enforce, but Biden can use the bully pulpit of the presidency to drive home the point that we all have to make difficult trade-offs.
At this point in the pandemic, our only way out is mass vaccination. Toward that end, Biden needs to aim higher — a lot higher. His goal of 100 million inoculations in 100 days might sound good, but it’s far from sufficient. Let’s assume that it will take 80 percent of the country being vaccinated to reach herd immunity. At the rate of 1 million vaccinations a day, with two doses required per person, it would take the United States until the summer of 2022 to reach herd immunity. Surely that’s not the moonshot to which we should aspire.
Actually, it’s a disappointingly low goal. There have already been several individual days when the U.S. has reached 800,000 to 900,000 vaccinations. That’s as part of a vaccine effort that Biden himself has referred to as a “dismal failure.” Reaching 1 million a day is hardly much of an improvement.
Biden’s team has laid out an ambitious vaccination plan that strives for both speed and equity. This plan should be accompanied by an equally ambitious goal. At the very least, we need to get to 2.5 million vaccinations a day; even at that rate, it will take well into this fall to reach herd immunity.
Perhaps the Biden team chose a low bar because they don’t want to follow the Trump playbook of overpromising and underdelivering. Perhaps they have new information. Last week, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar admitted there was no reserve of vaccines; maybe the Biden team has uncovered supply problems. If that’s the case, they should tell the Americans what they know, now. But if the supply will be there, they must aim to get vaccines into arms at a far greater pace.
Biden is inheriting the greatest crisis of our lifetimes, one that was made many times worse because of his predecessor’s inaction. In one day, Biden has already done more to restore faith in the government’s ability to address the pandemic than the Trump administration did in a year. To meet the moment, he must be even bolder. Such aspiration is our only hope for saving lives and livelihoods.