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On his first full day in office, one day after the daily count of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. set a new record high of more than 4,400, President Biden signed additional executive orders aimed at increasing testing and speeding up vaccinations.
In addition to his actions on Wednesday mandating the use of masks on federal property and rejoining the World Health Organization, Biden signed 10 executive orders and directives Thursday that seek to expand access to testing and safety equipment, reopen schools safely and reach his administration’s lofty goal of administering 100 million shots by the end of his first 100 days in office, according to a document provided by the White House that details his pandemic strategy.
More than 400,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19, data from Johns Hopkins University shows, and nearly 25 million Americans have contracted the virus. Biden has admitted that the death toll will likely reach 500,000 next month. Bloomberg reports that about 17 million shots have been administered in the U.S. since vaccinations began on Dec. 14, although the vaccines in use require two separate doses to confer maximum immunity.
Biden’s orders come as at least one new variant of the virus has emerged — one that’s more contagious and could render the vaccine less effective. Biden has warned that there are dark days ahead, and that more deaths will occur during the rollout of the vaccine.
The president acknowledged the death toll Thursday, telling reporters at a news conference that the number is more than the total number of American deaths during World War II.
“This is a wartime undertaking,” he said.
Biden signed an executive order directing agencies to use the appropriate authority, including the Defense Production Act — a 1950 law that allows the president to direct private companies to prioritize orders from the federal government for national defense purposes — to bolster manufacturing and delivery of equipment needed to respond to the pandemic, such as N95 masks, foam swabs and rapid test kits, as well as the manufacture, delivery and administering of the vaccine.
In an attempt to hit his 100 million target, Biden directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Wednesday to start creating the first federally backed community vaccination centers, with the goal of creating 100 in the next month, according to his team. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to launch a program that will make vaccines available at local pharmacies next month.
Biden said Thursday that it will take months for the majority of Americans to get vaccinated.
Testing and PPE
Biden also issued an executive order aimed at ramping up COVID-19 testing. The order establishes a COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board, which will focus on expanding the supply of test kits and increasing access to testing.
He issued a memo directing FEMA to increase federal reimbursement for the cost of National Guard personnel and emergency supplies from 75 percent to 100 percent for states and tribes.
COVID treatments and inequities
Another executive order seeks to identify treatments for COVID-19. It establishes a “preclinical drug discovery and development program” that evaluates potential treatments that can be developed in response to the disease. The order also expands access to programs that help patients recovering from COVID-19.
It will also enhance the nation’s collection, production, sharing and analysis of COVID-19 data, and will enable federal and local governments to identify disparities in COVID infections and track access to vaccines and testing, according to the Biden administration.
Another order from Biden seeks to tackle the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on communities of color and underserved areas. The order establishes a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force that will provide recommendations to the president on how to best allocate resources and funding in communities with COVID-19-related inequities.
Biden signed an executive order focused on the reopening of schools, an issue that has persisted since the beginning of the pandemic. It directs the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide guidance on how to safely open schools, including colleges and universities, and on childcare providers.
The administration says a COVID-19 Response Team, which was created Wednesday through Biden’s executive orders, will work to ensure that testing materials, support for contact tracing and vaccinations for teachers are provided.
Mitigation efforts and travel
Biden signed an executive order calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to release guidance for employers on how to avoid COVID-19 exposure. It asks OSHA to determine whether to establish an emergency temporary standard for employers and directs the agency to enforce health and safety requirements.
He also issued an order requiring travelers to wear masks in airports and on certain modes of transportation, including trains and airplanes. International travelers must produce proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they can leave their country and depart for the United States, and must comply with CDC guidelines on self-quarantine.
In what appears to be a symbolic gesture, Biden signed a directive that “restores U.S. leadership and seeks to support the international health and humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary impacts, global health security and diplomacy, and better bio-preparedness and resilience for emerging and future biological threats.”
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