On Thursday, President Joe Biden is expected to sign 10 executive orders related to the coronavirus pandemic, including implementing a mask mandate for travel, directing resources toward serving minority communities and using emergency funds to support the safe reopening of schools.
The executive orders are part of Biden’s first steps to bring order to the federal COVID-19 response, which has thus far been lacking in many areas, public health officials say. On Wednesday, shortly after taking office, he signed an order mandating masks on federal property. An order that he will sign on Thursday expands slightly on that, bringing a mandate to transportation modes, including planes, trains and certain intercity buses.
The other orders Biden will sign on Thursday fall under three general themes: school reopening, support for COVID-related research, and infrastructure and equity in health outcomes. Two are aimed at developing “a national strategy for safely reopening schools” and directing funds from FEMA to fully reimburse localities and schools for doing so.
Five orders are aimed at generally organizing the nation’s coronavirus response: invoking the Defense Production Act to compel companies to ramp up medical supply manufacturing, doing an inventory of vaccines and other supplies on hand, directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue updated guidance on COVID-related worker protections, and improving access to treatment.
On top of expanding access to healthcare options, two of the orders are aimed specifically at improving equity in the U.S.’s COVID response. One directs researchers to further research COVID-19 treatments with a focus on the needs of diverse populations. The other establishes a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, directed by Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor of internal medicine at Yale University, to address racial and economic disparities in health outcomes that have been rampant through the course of the pandemic.
On top of issuing executive orders, Biden has ordered the U.S. to rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO) after Trump put an end to WHO funding last April.
Some of these moves are relatively basic — as Ezra Klein noted for the New York Times, “Biden’s COVID-19 plan is maddeningly obvious” — mostly because the Donald Trump administration left a COVID response that was extremely bare-boned. Because Trump had blocked the traditional transition between administrations, the Biden administration did not receive the traditional briefings, which help an incoming administration prepare to take over in the several weeks between the election and the inauguration.
“What we’re inheriting from the Trump administration is so much worse than we could have imagined,” said Jeff Zients, Biden’s COVID czar, in a call with reporters on Wednesday.
During a time when several states are running out of vaccines, the Trump administration had, CNN reports, no vaccine distribution plan to hand off to President Biden’s team, forcing the new administration to create a plan from square one. “There is nothing for us to rework,” one source told CNN. “We are going to have to build everything from scratch.”
On top of such little planning infrastructure to work with, the Biden administration must also come to grips with a massive amount of erosion of public trust in the entire public health system that Republicans have created and left behind.
Biden, for his part, seems to be clear-eyed about the problems that he and his COVID task forces must handle. On Friday, he said, “This will be one of the most challenging operational efforts ever undertaken by our country. You have my word that we will manage the hell out of this operation.”