WASHINGTON — On his second day in office, President Joe Biden signed 10 executive orders to ramp up Covid-19 vaccinations, expand testing and reopen schools as he outlined a detailed plan to tackle the pandemic.
Biden's team began warning weeks ago that they saw the outgoing administration's covid-19 vaccine plan as subpar, and since he took office on Wednesday, the new president has moved quickly to implement a new framework for getting vaccines into arms.
As part of the plan, the new administration will increase the number of vaccination sites by creating federal community vaccination centers in stadiums, gymnasiums and conference centers staffed with thousands of additional workers, some of them from federal agencies and the military, as well as first responders. Biden said there should be 100 of those centers next month.
"We didn't get into this mess overnight and it is going to take months to get it turned around," Biden said, warning the country will likely top 500,000 deaths next month. "But let me be equally clear, we will get through this, we will defeat this pandemic."
Biden's 198-page plan also looks for ways to speed vaccine production, including using the Defense Production Act, shoring up the supply chain and releasing more of the federal government's reserves. Biden encouraged all states to start vaccinating people 65 and older, along with certain essential workers, including teachers and grocery store employees.
Biden's team says the Trump administration focused solely on the distribution of the vaccine but failed to plan for actual administration, leaving the job of getting shots in arms up to state and local governments. Biden has set an ambitious goal of giving 100 million shots in 100 days — picking up the pace from the 17 million shots the Trump administration recorded in a little over a month
“What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined,” said Jeff Zients, Biden's Covid coordinator, on a call with reporters.
Administration officials think they have the supply and resources to meet the goal, but they said they will need funding from Congress to expand vaccinations to the wider population, increase testing and help schools reopen. Biden is asking for more than $400 million for the pandemic response as part of a $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
"While we will urgently execute the strategy, we do need Congress to act — and act quickly. Congress must provide the necessary funding in the Covid relief package, the American Rescue Plan, that the president will soon be sending them," said Zients.
Biden's new CDC director Rochelle Walensky warned that Americans shouldn't expect a vaccine timeline that was promised by the Trump administration.
In a TODAY Show interview Thursday, Walensky said the shots won't be available for the general public at retail pharmacies, like the flu vaccine is, by late February, as former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Guthrie last month.
"We are going to, as part of our plan, put the vaccine in pharmacies. Will it be in every pharmacy in this country by that timeline? I don't think so," Walensky said. "I don't think late February, we're going to have vaccine in every pharmacy in this country."
Biden also signed an executive order Thursday to require people to wear masks in airports and on airplanes, trains and maritime vessels and to mandate that international travelers have tested negative for Covid-19 before they depart for the U.S. and quarantine upon arrival.
Biden's coronavirus team said that because of a lack of information-sharing by the Trump administration during the transition, it is only beginning to get its arms around the state of the vaccination program. Officials have just begun to evaluate the supply and production schedule to figure out how much vaccine they can release while being able to ensure enough is left for people to get their second doses, Zients said.
Biden has said he wants the majority of K-8 schools to open in his first 100 days. To help make that happen, he signed a presidential memorandum Thursday reimbursing schools for additional cleaning, protective equipment and other costs associated with getting students back to the classroom using disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also direct his administration to develop new reopening guidelines.
Biden directed agencies to use their powers, including the Defense Production Act, to accelerate production of items in short supply, and he will direct FEMA to increase the federal reimbursement from 75 percent to 100 percent of the cost for National Guard, personnel and emergency supplies needed to create vaccination centers.
"This is a wartime undertaking," Biden said.
The administration said it will begin holding regular public briefings led by scientists and increase the amount of data being shared publicly, including metrics around race, the capacity of the health care system and vaccine supplies.
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"The federal government should be the source of truth to the public to get clear, accessible and scientifically accurate information about Covid-19," Zients said. "We will be honest, transparent and straightforward with the American people to rebuild that trust."
Biden issued more than a dozen executive orders and memorandums in his first hours in office Wednesday, undoing many of the hallmarks of President Donald Trump's tenure and beginning to make his own mark on how the U.S. will respond to its multiple crises. Aides have said more executive actions are expected in the coming days and weeks.