President Joe Biden attempted to jump-start the US government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on his first day in office on Wednesday, signing a string of executive orders intended to lead a country reeling from its worst public health crisis in more than a century.
Biden took office a day after the United States marked a total of 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began spreading widely last March. Vaccination programmes have lagged far behind the target of 20 million Americans inoculated by the end of 2020.
“We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus and must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation,” Biden, a 78-year-old Democrat, said in his inauguration speech.
The US has reported nearly 200,000 new COVID-19 infections and 3,000 deaths a day on a seven-day rolling average, according to Reuters data. More than 123,000 Americans were hospitalised with COVID-19 as of Wednesday. More people have now died in the pandemic than were killed fighting the Second World War.
The actions Biden signed on Wednesday included a mask mandate on federal property and federal employees, an order to establish a new White House office coordinating the response to the virus and halting the process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO), aides said.
Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, began the process of withdrawing from the global health agency last year after accusing it of incompetence and bowing to Chinese pressure over the coronavirus.
Wednesday “starts a new day, a new, different approach to managing the country’s response to COVID-19 crisis”, said Jeff Zients, who heads Biden’s pandemic team.
Symbolising the new president’s commitment to a more prominent global role, top infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci will lead a delegation to take part in the WHO Executive Board meeting on Thursday, said Zientes.
Fauci will lay out how the new administration intends to work with the WHO on reforms, supporting the coronavirus response and promoting global health and health security, he said, adding: “America’s withdrawal from the international arena has impeded progress on the global response and left us more vulnerable to future pandemics.”
The Biden administration also intends to join the COVAX alliance, an initiative led by the WHO and two other groups that seeks to secure greater access to COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the US’s re-engagement with the WHO, said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, adding it was “absolutely critical” for a better coordinated global response against COVID-19.
“With vaccines being a critical tool in the battle against COVID-19, the United States joining and supporting the COVAX facility will give momentum to efforts to ensure equitable access to vaccines for all countries,” Dujarric said.
Biden’s first moves are intended to show a break with the Trump administration’s pandemic response, which critics called ineffectual and uncoordinated.
The federal mask mandate, in particular, is intended to set an example for state and local officials as they try to rein in the virus, Zientes said.
Scientists and public health experts have said face masks can help prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus but face coverings have become a flashpoint in American life reflecting the nation’s larger political divide.
Trump, who contracted COVID-19 last northern hemisphere autumn, rejected calls for a national mask mandate and held largely maskless campaign rallies. Biden’s campaign initially stuck to virtual events before expanding to other masked and socially distant gatherings.
The federal mask mandate drew praise from the country’s top business lobby on Wednesday, with US Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark calling it “a smart and practical approach”.
Meanwhile, Rochelle P Walensky, who was sworn in on Wednesday as the new director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said she would initiate a “comprehensive review of all existing guidance related to COVID-19”.
“Better, healthier days lie ahead,” Walensky said in a statement. “But to get there, COVID-19 testing, surveillance, and vaccination must accelerate rapidly. We must also confront the longstanding public health challenges of social and racial injustice and inequity that have demanded action for far too long.”
Walensky, formerly an infectious-diseases specialist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, has previously said one of her top priorities will be to improve the CDC’s communications with the public to rebuild trust. Under Trump, the agency had sunk into the shadows, undermined by an administration that was bent on downplaying the coronavirus.
“America and the world are counting on CDC’s science and leadership,” said Walensky. “Just as it has since the beginning of the pandemic, CDC will continue to focus on what is known – and what more can be learned – about the virus to guide America.”