Coronavirus

Biden unveils a national pandemic response plan that Trump resisted

“What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined."

President Joe Biden signs his first executive order in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will use his first full day in office Thursday to go on the offensive against the coronavirus, with a 200-page national strategy that includes aggressive use of executive authority to protect workers, advance racial equity and ramp up the manufacturing of test kits, vaccines and supplies.

The “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness,” previewed in a 21-page summary Wednesday evening by Biden’s advisers, outlines the kind of muscular and highly coordinated federal response that Democrats have long demanded and President Donald Trump refused.

Instead, Trump insisted that state governments take the lead. The Biden advisers said that they were stunned by the vaccination plan — or the lack of one — that it inherited from the outgoing Trump administration, and said that the Trump team failed to share crucial information about supplies and vaccine availability.

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“What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined,” said Jeff Zients, the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator, adding, “The cooperation or lack of cooperation from the Trump administration has been an impediment. We don’t have the visibility that we would hope to have into supply and allocations.”

One day after Biden was inaugurated at a ceremony full of pomp and ritual but robbed by the pandemic of the usual crowds, he and his team hope to signal to the public that their approach will be far more assertive.

The new president intends to make expansive use of his executive authority to sign a dozen executive orders or actions related to COVID-19 — including one requiring mask-wearing “in airports, on certain modes of public transportation, including many trains, airplanes, maritime vessels, and intercity buses,” according to a fact sheet issued by the Biden administration. The president will appear in the White House with Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday afternoon to sign the executive actions.

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With its nominees for top health positions not yet confirmed by Congress, the Biden team said it has asked Trump’s surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Adams, to stay on as an adviser and to help with the transition. But a person close to Adams said no such offer had been made, and that in fact he was instructed to tender his resignation. He did so Wednesday, in a Facebook post saying it had been “the honor of my life” to serve in the position.

The Biden team said it had identified 12 “immediate supply shortfalls” that were critical to the pandemic response, including N95 surgical masks and isolation gowns, as well as swabs, reagents and pipettes used in testing — deficiencies that have dogged the nation for nearly a year. Jen Psaki, the new White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday evening that Biden “absolutely remains committed” to invoking the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law, to bolster supplies.

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But the president, who has proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package, will need the cooperation of Congress to carry out much of his ambitious plan, which also includes greatly expanding testing of asymptomatic people to reopen schools and businesses.

“On the asymptomatic screening side, we’re woefully under capacity, so we need the money in order to really ramp up testing, which is so important to reopening schools and businesses,” Zients said. “We need the testing. We need the money from Congress to fund the national strategy that the president will lay out.”

Biden’s strategy is organized around seven goals, including restoring trust with the American people by conducting “regular expert-led, science-based briefings” and advancing equity “across racial, ethnic and rural/urban lines” — another departure from Trump’s approach.

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

Biden intends to use his executive authority to create a new office for pandemic response within the White House, while also engaging various federal agencies in a more aggressive effort to combat the novel coronavirus.

To protect the health of workers, he will order the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to “immediately release clear guidance for employers.”

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He also intends to direct the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to issue new guidance on how to safely reopen schools — a major point of contention during the Trump administration, whose officials interfered with the school reopening guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to press administrators to bring students back.

To “address the disproportionate and severe impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and other underserved populations,” Biden will create a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Another executive order will establish a Pandemic Testing Board, an idea drawn from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Production Board, to ramp up testing and direct studies, including large-scale randomized trials, to identify treatments for COVID-19.

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And Biden will direct federal agencies to take any necessary action to “exercise all appropriate authorities,” including invoking the Defense Production Act, which allows the government to compel companies to prioritize the government’s orders over those of other clients, to increase the availability of essential supplies.

His advisers were not specific, though, about when or how the act would be used.

“Where we can produce more, we will, and if we need to use the Defense Production Act to help more be made, we’ll do that too,” said Tim Manning, Biden’s COVID supply chain commander. He added, “It’s time to fix America’s COVID supply response shortage problems.”

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Biden has repeatedly promised to “get 100 million COVID-19 shots into the arms of the American people” by his 100th day in office — a goal that Zients characterized as “ambitious but achievable.” The president has already directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin standing up federally supported community vaccination centers, with the goal of having 100 centers in operation within the next month.

Some of Biden’s actions, though, echo those of Trump. For instance, Biden will issue an executive order requiring international travel travelers to produce a negative coronavirus test before departing for the United States — a requirement that is already in place. And he will move to expand eligibility for vaccination to people 65 and older, a step the Trump administration had already taken.

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“We will encourage states to begin opening up eligibility to include folks over 65 and frontline essential workers like educators, teachers, first responders and grocery store workers,” said Dr. Bechera Choucair, a former Chicago public health commissioner who is now the COVID vaccine coordinator. “So, more people, more places, more supply.”

In addition to laying out the president’s strategy, Wednesday’s call was a chance for the new administration to introduce the leaders of its COVID-19 response team: Zients, Manning, Choucair, Carole Johnson, the testing coordinator, and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Biden’s top adviser on issues of race and health equity, who will lead the new equity task force.

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Nunez-Smith said her task force would issue specific recommendations to the president to erase racial inequities in the COVID-19 response, but said it was too early to know whether recommendations for vaccination would be changed. The current recommendations, drafted by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, known as the ACIP, do not explicitly prioritize vaccination for people of color, who have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.

But Nunez-Smith noted that they do prioritize frontline workers, many of whom are people of color. “I think there’s a rationale for why the recommendations don’t explicitly, at least for ACIP and CDC, name racial categories,” she said.

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