Shortly after being inaugurated, President Joe Biden signed a raft of executive orders, proclamations and memorandums, including several that attempt to more effectively tackle the coronavirus pandemic that has already taken more than 400,000 American lives. Biden's bold action comes amid reports that the new president was left with "a complete lack of a vaccine distribution strategy" by his predecessor.
"The President's actions today in his first hours in office speak to the long-overdue leadership our country needs to tackle this pandemic," a White House spokesperson told Salon. "President Biden will lead an urgent national response, which includes distinct measures like calling on Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days and invoking the Defense Production Act to boost vaccine supply and availability. With a dedicated COVID response team working in strong partnership with officials across our country, we will be able to finally address this pandemic with the urgency and leadership needed."
He also announced plans to issue an executive order requiring people to wear masks in certain travel situations, such as when they are in airports and on many intercity buses, trains and airplanes. His national mask mandate on federal property is an "appropriate and important national example of what needs to be done — and what he can do directly and immediately," Irwin Redlener, leader of Columbia University's Pandemic Response Initiative, explained to Salon.
Redlener also praised Biden's decision to re-enter the United States into the World Health Organization (WHO), arguing that "it was totally irresponsible for us to withdraw in the first place. It is the only global organization working on this extraordinary global crisis."
Biden's push to increase aid to marginalized communities that have been underserved during the pandemic, Redlener also stressed, is what "we need to address this indefensible inequity of black and brown people being at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. People in low-income communities need to move to the front of the vaccine line."
Redlener did acknowledge, however, that Biden will have his work cut out for him when it comes to restructuring the federal government's response to the pandemic, telling Salon that "there are a lot of moving parts necessary to create a fast, effective program to expand testing, trace contacts, treat victims and vaccinate as many Americans as possible, as rapidly as possible." He believes that Biden has "a great team of experts" and his challenge will be "getting them to work together on a shared mission — and doing so efficiently."
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, echoed Redlener's views.
"President Biden has rebooted the COVID pandemic response," Benjamin wrote to Salon. "We finally have a transparent written national plan to guide the response. It is using the best science we know works." With regard to the mask wearing mandate, Benjamin observed that "mask wearing is the most important single prevention tool we have. It is part of a layered set of protections that include hand hygiene and physical distancing." Benjamin likewise praised the decision to put the United States back in the WHO, pointing out that "this will help coordinate US efforts with the rest of the world," and expressed agreement with Biden's engagement with outside nonprofit groups to coordinate a pandemic response, his goal to have 1 million vaccination shots every day for his first 100 days and his promised use of the Defense Production Act to maintain an efficient supply line for the vaccination effort.
"These things will accelerate the effort and I think will be highly successful if implemented as proposed," Benjamin argued.
Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus and professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Salon that Biden's measures are a good start when it comes to the goal of containing the pandemic and saving lives.
"We have to start somewhere!" Sommer explained by email. "With the President advocating the public health measures real experts have been promulgating for nearly a year, perhaps more people will pay attention and follow these common sense recommendations." He added that until the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are more readily available to the public, following common sense public health guidelines "is the only hope we have for preventing unnecessary deaths from this pandemic! We can only hope more people will pay attention, wear masks, and socially distance" and that they should do so "even after they are vaccinated, because no vaccine is 100% effective, and we don't yet know whether the vaccine prevents someone from becoming infected and infecting others."
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon by email that even some of Biden's policies which might not seem to directly involve the fight against COVID-19 will have a salutary effect in America's need to eradicate the disease. She specifically cited his financial relief programs including a moratorium on evictions and student loan postponement.
"The economic downturn in this pandemic goes hand-in-hand with poor health outcomes," Gandhi explained. "Food insecurity, housing insecurity, poverty [are] all contributing to poor health outcomes so recognition of this is essential."
As far as what Biden will need to do beyond these initial steps, Dr. Russell Medford, Chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, argued that the president should "take immediate steps to reverse the marginalization of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] by re-establishing its reputation and fully resourcing its COVID-19 scientific, pandemic and disease expertise and operational capabilities as the country's, and world's, leading and most trusted public health agency."
Biden will have to "institute regular and frequent briefings on the pandemic to the public by the CDC and other government scientists," Medford said, to empower the CDC to effectively surveil and test for COVID-19 on a national level and "establish an integrated and accessible national system and standards for COVID-19 data collection ranging from hospital capacity and vaccine distribution, to the health and economic impact of COVID on a state and county level and especially on communities already suffering disproportionately from health disparities."
Medford also said that Biden will need to "accelerate and sustain" his initial efforts to vaccinate the majority of Americans, something that will need to include creating a "Task Force on Health and Vaccine Equity" that would, among other things, provide accurate information about vaccines "that address the oftentimes distinct and community-specific issues that drive vaccine hesitancy and to deliver this information to susceptible populations."
The Biden administration's goal "will need to go to 2-3 million vaccinations per day to achieve herd immunity by midsummer," the APHA's Dr. Benjamin explained, adding that "once we get a third vaccine and the response gets ramped up as proposed this should be possible." He also said that the administration could consider "increasing efforts to engage volunteers to address the workforce shortage and assessing disparities in vaccine administration as well are already seeing inequities in vaccinations for minorities."
Biden's policies are a stark contrast from those implemented by his predecessor, Donald Trump, who ignored expert medical advice about the seriousness of the pandemic for more than two months after it reached the United States, repeatedly touted pseudoscientific advice like pushing for herd immunity and urging people to inject bleach, often refused to wear a mask and downplayed the importance of doing so, terminated America's relationship with the WHO and delayed working with the incoming Biden administration on coordinating a COVID-19 response so that he could focus on pushing baseless claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.