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Biden Signs Orders on COVID Supplies, Vaccines, Masking

WASHINGTON — Having promised to “manage the hell” out of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden sought to make good on it Thursday, announcing new executive orders and other actions to combat the virus:

  • Ramping up supplies and equipment. One order directs relevant agencies to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to accelerate manufacturing and meet shortfalls in COVID-19 equipment and supplies, including N95 masks, isolation gowns, nitrile gloves, PCR sample collection swabs, test reagents, pipette tips, laboratory analysis machines for PCR tests, high-absorbency foam swabs, and rapid test kits.
  • Driving up COVID testing. Another order establishes a COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board to help expand the supply of tests and testing equipment. Biden also will use the DPA to buy more tests and expand manufacturing capacity. The order also expands the public health workforce, supports COVID-19 screening in schools, and ensures that underserved communities can “equitably” access tests.
  • Increasing studies on COVID-19 treatments. This order asks for studies on COVID-19 treatments and ensuring those studies include diverse populations. The order also outlines steps to increase healthcare workforce capacity and expand access to programs for “long-haulers.”
  • Speeding up vaccinations. Biden is directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to start setting up vaccination centers, aiming toward a goal of 100 centers in the next month. In addition, CDC will start a federal pharmacy program to make vaccines available to local pharmacies beginning in February. He is also deploying the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, whose workforce is being expanded.
  • Reopening schools and businesses. Another executive order directs the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide guidance on safe reopening and operating for schools, child care providers, and institutions of higher education. “The COVID-19 Response Team will work to ensure that testing materials, support for contact tracing, and vaccinations for teachers are equitably provided to support in-person care and learning,” according to a fact sheet. The order also “encourages the Federal Communications Commission to increase connectivity options for students lacking reliable home broadband, so that they can continue to learn if their schools are operating remotely.”
  • Improving worker protections. Yet another executive order directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to immediately release clear guidance for employers to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure. It also asks OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration to determine whether to establish emergency temporary standards that require employers to take steps to keep workers safe from COVID-19, and it directs OSHA to enforce worker health and safety requirements.
  • Increasing travel safety. Making travel safer was the goal of another executive order on Thursday. An order Biden signed Wednesday requires masks to be worn in federal buildings, and Thursday’s order extends the mask requirement to interstate travel, including on planes, trains, and buses. It also institutes new requirements for people flying into the U.S. from another country; they will need to test negative for COVID prior to departure and quarantine after they arrive in the U.S.

The administration’s overall plan was also laid out in a 200-page document released Thursday, which included full texts of the executive orders.

On Wednesday, Biden wrote to both the United Nations Secretary General and the WHO Director General to reverse the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO ordered by President Trump. The president followed up Thursday with a directive that “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 biopreparedness and resilience for emerging and future biological threats,” according to the fact sheet.

Biden also is issuing a presidential memorandum directing FEMA to increase federal reimbursement to states and tribes from 75% to 100% of the cost for National Guard personnel and emergency supplies, such as PPE, cleaning and sanitizing efforts, and the personnel and equipment needed to create vaccination centers.

“We’re in a national emergency and it’s time we treated it like one,” President Biden said before signing several executive orders aimed at combatting COVID-19. (Photo courtesy C-SPAN livestream)

At a White House signing ceremony on Thursday, Biden repeated earlier sentiments about his administration following the science on COVID-19. “We will make sure that scientists and public health experts will speak directly to you — not the president, but real, genuine experts and scientists,” he said. “We’ll make sure they work free from political interference and make decisions strictly based on science and health alone, not what the political consequences are.” He added that “we will level with you when we make a mistake. We’ll straight up say what happened.”

He also warned Americans that “we’re still in a dark winter of this pandemic; it’s going to get worse before it gets better … The progress from our plan will take time to measure as people getting infected today, they don’t show up in case counts for weeks.” And, despite the administration’s best intentions, “we’re going to face setbacks, which I’ll always explain to you. But I also know, we can do this if we come together.”

“We’re in a national emergency and it’s time we treated it like one,” he concluded. “History is going to measure whether we’re up to the task. I believe we are … I believe we’re ready to set big goals and pursue them with courage, conviction, and honesty, because the health of the nation is literally at stake.”

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow