In a briefing on the eve of the inauguration, senior aides had portrayed these first-day actions as initial strategies within his grasp to begin to reorient the federal effort to defeat the pandemic, which hit a grim milestone Tuesday of 400,000 deaths from covid-19, exactly a year since the nation’s first case was detected. Covid-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Wednesday “starts a new, different approach to managing the covid-19 crisis,” said Jeff Zients, who is coordinator of the Biden White House’s coronavirus response. “This is clearly a national emergency, and we will treat it as such.”
Advisers did not provide new details on how Biden will change the federal strategy for vaccinating Americans against the coronavirus. Of the slow-moving vaccination campaign, Zients said merely that the new administration intends to place “all hands on deck to ramp up getting shots in arms.”
Specifically, Biden signed an executive order that he previewed in early December as part of a strategy to foster greater willingness among Americans to wear masks to help protect against the virus’s spread. Attitudes toward masks became highly politicized during the Trump administration, with the former president mocking those who wore them and, for several months, refusing to be seen in one in public.
Biden seeks to defuse the partisan nature of what public health officials advocate as a simple and effective means to inhibit the virus’s transmission. The president does not have the authority to order masks nationwide. But his executive order will compel people to wear masks and keep at safe distances in federal buildings and on federal property, aides said. It also applies to federal workers and contractors.
In addition, advisers said the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will encourage states, cities and U.S. territories to adopt their own mask and safe-distance requirements.
Another executive order Biden signed Wednesday reverses the Trump administration’s move to begin withdrawing from the World Health Organization, which his predecessor accused of being manipulated by China.
The president is going to halt that process, which started in July, Zients said, contending the action “restores America’s role leading the world through this crisis.”
On Thursday, he said, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci, who is serving as Biden’s chief medical officer for the coronavirus, is scheduled to speak at a meeting of the WHO’s executive board.
The incoming administration also signaled it would take a different approach to vaccine policy globally. During his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said Biden would bring the United States into a global initiative called Covax intended to ensure that high-risk people in low-income countries have access to coronavirus vaccines.
The initiative, backed by the WHO, is working to bring at least 2 billion doses to less-developed countries by the end of the year. Much of the world’s nations, aside from the U.S. and Russia, support the program.
“We believe strongly that we can do that — ensure that every American gets the vaccine, but also help make sure that others around the world who want it have access to it,” Blinken said.
The Trump administration had said the United States would not join the effort, in part because of the former president’s refusal to participate in the WHO.
Another executive order Biden signed Wednesday will restore a unit within the White House’s National Security Council that focused on global health security and biodefense until the Trump administration disbanded it. That office, Zients said, will “play a critical role in stopping the covid-19 pandemic and prevent future biological catastrophes.”
Those actions are among 17 executive orders that Biden had planned to sign after he assumed office, with others focused on addressing economic strains caused by the pandemic, the climate and matters of race and equity.
Advisers said the orders would be followed within days or weeks by reversals of other Trump-era policies, including getting rid of the so-called “Mexico City policy,” which has required nonprofits in other countries that receive federal family planning assistance to promise they will not perform or encourage abortions. The policy has been a partisan pendulum for decades, reappearing when Republicans have been in the White House and vanishing under Democratic presidents.