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100 days of COVID: Grading Biden on vaccination, schools and masks

Andrew Romano and Alexander Nazaryan
·12 min read
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On the day Joe Biden became president — Jan. 20, 2021 — the U.S. was averaging nearly 200,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,000 COVID-19 deaths each day. More than 400,000 Americans had already succumbed to the disease; just 4 percent of the population had been vaccinated. Biden was acutely aware that history would judge his first 100 days, and perhaps his entire presidency, on how well he handled the COVID crisis. So he and his team set to work.

“This first 100 days is unlike any of the typical first 100 days of any administration,” said Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel, a practicing internist, Brookings Institution health scholar and former Obama administration official. “In some ways, it could be the most important 100 days of the entire pandemic.”

President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations at the White House on April 21. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations at the White House on April 21. (Evan Vucci/AP)

On Capitol Hill, the Biden administration pushed for a $1.9 trillion rescue package that included direct stimulus checks for most Americans as well as billions to buttress the nation’s public health response. The bill passed March 10 on a party-line vote, with Republicans unanimously opposed.

At the same time, Biden laid out three big COVID-19 goals — on vaccination, schools and masks. The question now, as his first 100 days come to an end, is whether he lived up to his promises.

Here’s how Yahoo News would grade the new president’s progress.

VACCINATION

What Biden promised: “[My administration will get] at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in the first 100 days.” — Dec. 8, 2020

What Biden actually accomplished: The U.S. has administered roughly 220 million COVID vaccine shots since Biden took office, more than double the goal he set in December.

But this probably says less about the new president’s vaccination prowess than about reality outpacing his initial pledge.

When Biden first made his vow to hit 1 million shots per day, it was ambitious; the U.S. had yet to vaccinate anyone. “It's really concerning to make big proclamations early on ... because you can't necessarily know what you don't know,” Patel said. “It has more to do with unexpected risks.”

Yet by the time Biden arrived in the White House six weeks later, the country was already administering 900,000 daily doses, on average, so 100 million shots in 100 days no longer looked like a heavy lift — or much of a lift at all.

Under pressure from scientists and reporters, Biden eventually upped his 100-day vaccination benchmark twice — first by saying “I think we may be able to get [to] 1.5 million a day” on Jan. 25, then by officially moving the goalposts to 200 million on March 25.

The administration went on to reach 100 million shots on day 59 of Biden’s tenure, 150 million shots on day 75 and 200 million on day 92.

Local 28 Sheet Metal Worker Demetrius Buttelman gestures after being inoculated with the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine during a news conference, at the pop up vaccination site at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York on April 14, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/Pool via Reuters)
Sheet metal worker Demetrius Buttelman after receiving the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine in Elmont, N.Y., on April 14. (Mary Altaffer/Pool via Reuters)

That’s great progress. At one point, the U.S. was administering an average of 3.7 million shots per day; so far, more than 42 percent of the U.S. population has gotten at least one dose, which is among the best rates in the world. All presidents claim credit for the positive things that happen on their watch, and Biden will be no exception.

Yet his instinct to play it safe by underpromising and overdelivering has led some conservative critics to claim that he didn’t really do anything at all — except benefit from a rollout that was already well underway when his predecessor, Donald Trump, left for Mar-a-Lago.

Biden, meanwhile, has repeatedly complained about “the mess we inherited from the previous administration, which left us with no real plan to vaccinate all Americans.”

The truth (as usual) is more complicated than either side would have it. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson were always planning to ramp up production in early 2021, and it was the Trump administration that secured those contracts, which included options to buy additional doses. It was also Trump aides who established the federal partnerships with state officials and agreements with local pharmacies that allowed Biden to steadily expand eligibility throughout the late winter and early spring.

Yet Biden’s team didn’t stop there. According to a report in the New York Times, “Corporate, state and federal officials agree that Mr. Biden’s White House has been more active than his predecessor’s in trying to build up the nation’s vaccine stock.” Soon after taking office, Biden exercised the existing contract options with Pfizer and Moderna, boosting U.S. supply to cover 300 million adults. His aides determined that by invoking the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, the federal government could help Pfizer obtain the heavy machinery it needed to expand its Michigan plant; for months, the Trump administration had refused to use the DPA to prioritize Pfizer’s needs.

A man receives a dose of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a clinic ran by Skippack Pharmacy as cases rise in the state in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 18, 2021.  (Hannah Beier/Reuters)
A man receives a dose of coronavirus vaccine in Lansdale, Pa., on April 18. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

Later, Biden’s top aides pushed Johnson & Johnson to force a key subcontractor into round-the-clock operations so its vaccine could be bottled faster, while also successfully demanding that the pharmaceutical company commit more resources to the vaccine and brokering a deal with its longtime competitor Merck to increase production. Eventually, to improve vaccine equity, the Biden administration created more than a dozen mass vaccination sites managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and staffed by military medical and support personnel.

In short, Biden benefited from systems that were already in place and helped speed them up. Now vaccine supply is outstripping demand. As a result, the big challenge for his next 100 days will be figuring out how to transform those same systems to reach beyond early adopters and target indifferent or even hesitant communities instead.

“There have been no easy solutions,” Patel said. “And as a result, we see COVID-19 disproportionately affecting Black and brown and Indigenous communities, not just with the disease, but also with the low vaccination rates. … [Then] we have an entire [Republican] population that simply does not want to be vaccinated just because Joe Biden is president and they thought the election was unfair.”

For now, Biden is right where he wanted to be on vaccination. But the hard part has only just begun.

Status: Promise kept

SCHOOLS

What Biden promised: “If states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.” — Dec. 8, 2020

What Biden actually accomplished: Are schools across the country just about completely reopened?

Yes.

Did schools across the country reopen because of Joe Biden?

That’s a more complicated question.

When he came into office, Biden promised to reopen schools, which had been closed since the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring. Trump spent much of the summer of 2020 goading schools into reopening, casting the challenge as one that had less to do with the coronavirus than with recalcitrant teachers' unions.

Whatever else they may be, those unions are incredibly powerful and represent thousands of educators across the country. By and large, union leaders maintained that it was unsafe to return to the classroom, even though science kept finding that schools simply did not act as transmission points for the coronavirus.

Chicago Teachers Union members display signs while former teacher Tara Stamps speaks ahead of a car caravan where teachers and supporters gathered to demand a safe and equitable return to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago, IL on December 12, 2020. (Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Chicago Teachers Union members at an event in December where teachers and supporters called for a safe return to in-person learning. (Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Biden promised to open schools during his presidential campaign. But his long-standing allegiance with organized labor made some wonder if his commitment was genuine. Plus, reopening schools was Trump’s priority, while building consensus and listening to differing points of view — including those of nervous teachers — was Biden’s.

Schools opened in September with 60 percent of children learning on the computer. By the time Biden took office, 49.6 percent of students were still stuck in “Zoom school.” A few districts (17.8 percent) had moved to hybrid instruction, with children in school only intermittently each week. (Data on school openings comes from Burbio, a site that aggregates and analyzes municipal data.)

Now this was Biden’s problem, and it was not one he seemed to handle exceptionally well. At one point in February, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration’s goal was to open half of all schools one day a week. That assertion was immediately derided, then revised by Biden to a “majority” of K-8 schools.

The unions, meanwhile, continued to push against reopening, with heated battles in Los Angeles and Chicago threatening to become a major political issue for the president.

Three months after Biden's inauguration, only 5.6 percent of students still attend school on a computer, according to Burbio. A majority (65.3 percent) are back in school as that institution was envisioned before the coronavirus — you know, kids at desks and teachers with chalk-covered hands — while another 29.1 percent are in a hybrid learning arrangement.

It is not clear that this state of affairs is Biden’s doing. It’s true, his coronavirus relief plan provided nearly $300 billion to schools nationwide, but given how slowly money moves through appropriations at every level of government, those funds didn’t make much difference as schools reopened in March and April.

Students raise their hands to answer a question at Kratzer Elementary School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 13, 2021. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)
Students at Kratzer Elementary School in Allentown, Pa., on April 13. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

Nor did Biden exert the kind of political pressure on unions that President Ronald Reagan famously did when air traffic controllers struck in 1981.

Instead, Biden appears to have benefited from several favorable trends, including the rising frustration of parents, which put unions on the defensive; the crest and fall of a winter coronavirus wave, which many felt would be the nation's last; the advent of coronavirus vaccines, which have now been administered to 80 percent of educators.

“There are going to be some … in-between phases,” Patel said. “But hopefully by the fall, when we have more availability for vaccines for adolescents and younger children, we could see a true in-person daily reopening for the school year.”

Plenty of questions remain about next year, when there could be new variants and waves. But for now, the trends provide all the evidence Biden needs to say that he has fulfilled this promise.

Status: Promise kept

MASKS

What Biden promised: “On the first day I’m inaugurated, I’m going to ask the public for 100 days to mask. Just 100 days to mask — not forever, just 100 days.” — Dec. 4, 2020

What Biden actually accomplished: As one of his very first actions as president, Biden issued an executive order aimed at “Encouraging Masking Across America” for the next 100 days.

“It’s not a political statement,” he said of masking as he signed the order. “It’s a patriotic act.”

At the same time, Biden also mandated masks on federal property and directed regulatory authorities to require masks on various modes of transportation, including trains, airplanes and intercity buses.

The question is whether it was enough.

“The president and the administration get a mixed score [on masks],” Patel said. “They get great praise for modeling behavior” but didn’t use their power to compel or reward “states and towns” to mandate masks because of “how political the issue of mask wearing has become.”

President Joe Biden removes his face mask to speak about the status of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccinations and his administration's ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington on April 21, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
Biden removes his face mask while speaking on April 21. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

As a candidate, Biden called for bolder action in the form of an actual national mask mandate.

"Every single American should be wearing a mask when they're outside for the next three months, at a minimum.” he said during an Aug. 14 briefing with public health experts in Wilmington, Del. "Let's institute a mask mandate nationwide starting immediately, and we will save lives."

“We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask,” Biden promised a week later while accepting the Democratic nomination from Delaware. “Not as a burden, but to protect each other.”

At the time, then-President Trump, who pointedly refused to model proper masking, attacked Biden for wanting to use federal powers to mandate behavior, and legal experts questioned whether such a mandate could even be enacted or enforced on the federal level.

Sensing that brewing partisan backlash from Republicans would probably make any true federal mandate more trouble than it was worth, Biden’s team eventually limited the mandate’s scope and largely settled for encouragement in the form of a clear message and a “unifying standard.”

Yet that left the president without any real leverage as more conservative areas rescinded their own mandates during the spring, in some cases leading to spikes in infection. In March, for instance, both Texas and Mississippi issued executive orders to eliminate mask mandates and let all businesses open at 100 percent capacity. All Biden could do was criticize the move as “Neanderthal thinking.”

“I think it’s a big mistake,” he said at the time.

People walk on the street on April 26, 2021 in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
People in New York on Monday. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Citing fall case counts and widening immunity, Biden announced Tuesday that CDC guidance would no longer call for vaccinated Americans to wear masks outdoors — a small step toward the “not forever” part of his initial 100-day challenge, just before the deadline.

Status: Promise partially kept

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