Biden signs federal mask mandate, establishes new White House office on COVID-19 and halts US withdrawal from WHO.
President Joe Biden has warned Americans that there are difficult days ahead regarding the coronavirus pandemic and predicted the US death toll will surpass half a million next month as he unveiled his “wartime undertaking” to tackle the health crisis.
“Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better,” Biden said at the White House on Thursday. “The death toll will likely top 500,000 next month.”
“For the past year, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination we needed and we have seen the tragic cost of that failure,” Biden said, referencing the more than 24 million COVID cases and more than 408,000 deaths in the US to date, the highest totals in the world.
Biden unveiled his new federal plan to deal with the virus, called the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness and signed several pandemic-related executive actions.
“Our national strategy is comprehensive. It’s based on science, not politics. It’s based on truth, not denial,” Biden said. The president has been extremely critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic and called the vaccine roll-out to date “a dismal failure so far”.
“Our national plan launches a full scale wartime effort to address the supply shortages by ramping up production and protective equipment, syringes, needles, you name it. When I say wartime, people kind of look at me like wartime? Well, as I said last night 400,000 Americans have died, that’s more than have died in all of World War Two. 400,000. This is a wartime undertaking.”
The previous government had set a goal of vaccinating 20 million people before the end of last year. As of Thursday, more than 17,500,000 vaccines have been administered across the US, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Among the goals of the plan are to put together an effective vaccination campaign to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days, “mitigate spread” via enhanced public health guidance and mandated mask-wearing, and safely reopen schools and businesses.
Some of these goals are being addressed by executive actions, 10 of which were signed by Biden on Thursday. One will require mask-wearing in airports and on public transportation, including many trains, planes and intercity buses.
Biden also signed orders to establish a board to increase COVID testing, address supply shortfalls, establish protocols for international travellers and direct resources to hard-hit minority communities.
Another executive action includes the intent to join the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), which aims to deliver vaccines to poor countries, Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, told the World Health Organization on Thursday.
Trump had halted funding to the WHO and planned to withdraw from the group in July, which Biden reversed in an executive order on taking office Wednesday.
Fauci told ABC News rejoining the WHO was a critical step in helping to fight the outbreak.
“It going to be really very important. When you’re dealing with a global pandemic you have to have an international connectivity,” he said.
Before taking office, Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package that would boost unemployment benefits and provide direct $1,400 payments to households.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the $1.9 trillion includes “the components that were necessary to give people the relief they needed”, but acknowledged the package would likely change as it sought Congressional approval.
The House is planning to bring the bill to a vote the first week of February, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday.