With a burst of executive orders, President Joe Biden has served notice that the nation’s Covid-19 response is under new management and he is demanding progress to reduce infections and lift the siege Americans have endured for nearly a year.
The 10 orders signed by President Biden are aimed at jump starting his national Covid-19 strategy to increase vaccinations and testing, lay the groundwork for reopening schools and businesses, and immediately increase the use of masks — including a requirement that Americans mask up for travel.
One directive calls for addressing healthcare inequities in minority communities hard hit by the virus.
“We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and it will take months to turn this around,” President Biden said. “Despite the best intentions we’re going to face setbacks “
But he declared: “To a nation waiting for action, let me be clear on this point: Help is on the way.”
The new president has vowed to take far more aggressive measures to contain the virus than his predecessor, starting with stringent adherence to public health guidance.
He faces steep obstacles, with the virus actively spreading in most states, slow progress on the vaccine rollout and political uncertainty over whether congressional Republicans will help him pass a 1.9 trillion dollars economic relief and Covid response package.
“We need to ask average Americans to do their part,” said Jeff Zients, the White House official directing the national response. “Defeating the virus requires a coordinated nationwide effort.”
Biden officials say they are hampered by lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition. They say they do not have a complete understanding of their predecessors’ actions on vaccine distribution.
And they face a litany of complaints from states that say they are not getting enough vaccine even as they are being asked to vaccinate more categories of people.
President Biden acknowledged the urgency of the mission in his inaugural address.
“We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said before asking Americans to join him in a moment of silence in memory of the more than 400,000 people in the US who have died from Covid-19.
President Biden’s top medical adviser on Covid-19, Dr Anthony Fauci, also announced renewed US support for the World Health Organisation after the Trump administration had pulled out of the global body.
Dr Fauci said that the US will join the UN health agency’s efforts to bring vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to people in need, whether in rich or poor countries and will resume full funding and staffing support for WHO.
The US mask order for travel being implemented by President Biden will apply to airports and planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation.
Travellers from abroad must furnish a negative Covid-19 test before departing for the US and quarantine upon arrival. President Biden has already mandated masks on federal property.
Although airlines, Amtrak and other transport providers now require masks, President Biden’s order makes it a federal mandate, leaving little wiggle room for passengers tempted to argue about their rights.
It marks a sharp break with the culture of President Donald Trump’s administration, under which masks were optional, and Mr Trump made a point of going maskless and hosting big gatherings of like-minded supporters.
Science has shown that masks, properly worn, cut down on coronavirus transmission.
President Biden also is seeking to expand testing and vaccine availability, with the goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office.
Mr Zients called Biden’s goal “ambitious and achievable”.
The Democratic president has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin setting up vaccination centres, aiming to have 100 up and running in a month.
He is ordering the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to begin a programme to make vaccines available through local pharmacies starting next month.
And he is mobilising the Public Health Service to deploy to assist localities in vaccinations.