President Joe Biden stressed science and unity in his first briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, giving Americans the “brutal truth” about the challenges the nation faces before signing a series of executive orders aimed at combating the pandemic.
“We’re still in a dark winter of this pandemic. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. It’s going to take many months to get where we need to be,” he said, noting deaths likely will top 500,000 next month. “Despite the best intentions, we’re going to face setbacks, which I will always explain to you. But I also know we can do this if we come together.”
Biden’s executive orders Thursday create a new “testing board” to expand testing for the coronavirus, order a national strategy to reopen schools and require masks in most planes, trains and airports.
He also laid out a series of promises on vaccine distribution and access.Biden said he was directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to start setting up the first federally supported community vaccination centers, with a goal of having 100 centers online within the next month.
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He also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will launch a federal pharmacy program to make vaccines available to communities and local pharmacies, starting “in very early February.”
Biden said he was tasking the Department of Health and Human Services to expand the pool of professionals who can administer the vaccine – the “vaccinators” – and said he planned to ask Congress for more money to expand the public health workforce.
Biden emphasized the importance of equity in vaccine access and, on Thursday, he formalized his COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force,which will provide recommendations to the president for allocating resources and funding in communities with inequities in COVID-19 outcomes by race, ethnicity, disability and other considerations.
The Biden team had set a goal to administer 100 million vaccines during his first 100 days. When a reporter asked Biden on Thursday if the goal was high enough, Biden responded, “When I announced it, you all said it’s not possible. Come on, give me a break, man.”
As Biden laid out vaccine plans, he urged Americans to continue practicing public health precautions. Biden renewed his call for Americans to mask up for 100 days, citing estimates that widespread masking between now and April could save more than 50,000 lives.
“The brutal truth is, it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated, so while we increase vaccinations, we’re going to take steps necessary now to slow the spread of disease,” he said.
Biden emphasized the importance of coordinating this “wartime undertaking” at all levels of government. He said his administration planned to partner with state and local officials and directed FEMA to establish a COVID-19 response liaison for each state.
“Every state will have a point person at the federal level to maximize cooperation between the federal government and the states, and where it falls short to be made known immediately,” he said. “This is the model we used to respond to Hurricane Sandy.”
The Biden team also had set a goal of reopening most K-8 schools in 100 days. On Thursday, Biden directed the Departments of Education and HHS to provide schools with clear guidance and resources to reopen schools and child care centers while calling for more stringent worker safety standards.
Biden also signed a declaration reimbursing states for the use of National Guard members in COVID-19 relief.
In addition to requiring people to wear face masks on most planes, Biden said people flying into the U.S. from other countries will need to receive a coronavirus test before getting on a plane and must quarantine upon arrival.
Biden said his plan, above all, was to “restore public trust” and make sure scientists and public health experts speak directly to the public.
“We’re in a national emergency. It’s time we treat it like one, together, with a national plan as the United States of America,” Biden said. “There are moments in history when more is asked of a particular generation, more is asked of us as Americans than other times. We are in that moment now.”