Thur. 10:15 a.m.: Biden to sign virus measures, requires mask use to travel
WASHINGTON (AP) — Deep in the deadliest coronavirus wave and facing worrisome new mutations, President Joe Biden will kick off his national COVID-19 strategy to ramp up vaccinations and testing, reopen schools and businesses and increase the use of masks — including a requirement that Americans mask up for travel.
Biden also will address inequities in hard-hit minority communities as he signs 10 pandemic-related executive orders today. Those orders are a first step, and specific details of many administration actions are still being spelled out.
The new president has vowed to take far more aggressive measures to contain the virus than his predecessor, starting with stringent adherence to public health guidance. He faces steep obstacles, with the virus actively spreading in most states, slow progress on the vaccine rollout and political uncertainty over whether congressional Republicans will help him pass a $1.9 trillion economic relief and COVID response package.
“We need to ask average Americans to do their part,” said Jeff Zients, the White House official directing the national response. “Defeating the virus requires a coordinated nationwide effort.”
Biden officials say they’re hampered by lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition. They say they don’t have a complete understanding of their predecessors’ actions on vaccine distribution. And they face a litany of complaints from states that say they are not getting enough vaccine even as they are being asked to vaccinate more categories of people.
Biden acknowledged the urgency of the mission in his inaugural address. “We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said before asking Americans to join him in a moment of silence in memory of the more than 400,000 people in the U.S. who have died from COVID-19.
Biden’s top medical adviser on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also announced renewed U.S. support for the World Health Organization after the Trump administration had pulled out of the global body. Fauci said early today that the U.S. will join the U.N. health agency’s efforts to bring vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to people in need, whether in rich or poor countries and will resume full funding and staffing support for WHO.
The U.S. mask order for travel being implemented by Biden will apply to airports and planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation. Travelers from abroad must furnish a negative COVID-19 test before departing for the U.S. and quarantine upon arrival. Biden has already mandated masks on federal property.
Although airlines, Amtrak and other transport providers now require masks, Biden’s order makes it a federal mandate, leaving little wiggle room for passengers tempted to argue about their rights. It marks a sharp break with the culture of President Donald Trump’s administration, under which masks were optional, and Trump made a point of going maskless and hosting big gatherings of like-minded supporters. Science has shown that masks, properly worn, cut down on coronavirus transmission.
Biden also is seeking to expand testing and vaccine availability, with the goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. Zients called Biden’s goal “ambitious and achievable.”