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Victoria Knight
By Victoria Knight January 22, 2021

Biden signs 10 executive actions aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19

President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to get COVID-19 under control. He often outlined how his response would differ from that of former President Donald Trump's: He would listen to scientists, encourage the use of masks and give the federal government a stronger role in addressing the pandemic. 

"We can overcome the deadly virus," Biden reiterated during his inaugural address on Jan. 20. 

On Inauguration Day and the first day of his presidency, Biden signed several executive orders marking his first official steps to help get COVID under control. He also halted the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, which Trump initiated.

One of the executive orders requires masks and physical distancing in all federal buildings. It also asks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with states and territories to implement masking policies. 

Another order Biden signed on Jan. 20 created a new position within the Executive Office of the President of COVID-19 response coordinator, and revived the National Security Council's Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, a group that disintegrated under the Trump administration

The COVID-19 response coordinator will report directly to Biden and direct the federal government's efforts to ensure a reliable supply of personal protective equipment, increase testing capacity across the nation and oversee vaccine distribution. The order reflects Biden's push for a more active federal role in addressing the pandemic.

Biden has already tapped Jeff Zients, an Obama-era official, to be response coordinator. During his time in the Obama administration, Zients worked to fix the rollout of healthcare.gov, the Affordable Care Act's marketplace website. Since the position doesn't require Senate confirmation, Zients can begin working immediately. 

The President also released a flurry of eight executive orders on Jan. 21 addressing the COVID pandemic, which included: 

The White House also released a 198-page national COVID-19 response plan, which includes a section on the vaccine distribution strategy. In addition, the president signed a memo that said the federal government would fund 100% of states' costs for using the National Guard to help with COVID-19 response efforts through Sept. 30, up from 75% under The Trump administration.  

With these executive orders, Biden is putting the federal government squarely behind addressing the pandemic, while Trump left many aspects of the response largely to states, said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of KFF). 

"But these orders, along with the broader plan released by the Biden administration, are really just the pandemic instruction manual for the federal government," Levitt wrote in an email. "Now the whole apparatus has to actually be assembled. We are seeing a very different direction charted immediately, but it will take time to see the effects." 

The masking executive orders particularly represent an important step toward aligning the country on a consistent message that masking works to prevent disease spread, said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. Still, there is resistance to mask-wearing among some people, and it remains to be seen if Biden's executive orders will change that.

"At this point, there is so much pandemic fatigue and so much misinformation that I don't think these efforts alone will be enough to stop the pandemic," Wen wrote in an email. "Our last and best hope is the vaccine. That should be president Biden's No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 focus."

Biden is inheriting a jumbled vaccine distribution plan from the Trump administration that is rolling out more slowly than government officials had hoped. The president will have to quickly increase and organize vaccine distribution and administration to get millions of Americans vaccinated over the next couple of months, which won't be easy. In addition, experts say that in order to actually contain the transmission of COVID-19, Biden will need to increase testing across the country. 

Increases in testing and vaccination will require funds from Congress. Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion plan the week before his inauguration that would fund these efforts, but the president could face opposition in getting it passed.

If Biden can overcome all of these challenges, he may be able to control the spread of COVID-19, but there are still a lot of tasks to complete before this mission will be accomplished. 

We rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

Email interview with Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at KFF, Jan. 21, 2021. 

Email interview with Dr. Leana Wen, visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, Jan. 20, 2021

KHN/Politifact, "Biden's Covid Challenge: 100 Million Vaccinations in the First 100 Days. It Won't Be Easy." Jan. 20, 2021

KHN/Politifact, "Did Donald Trump fire pandemic officials, defund CDC?" Feb. 28, 2020

Politifact, "What's in Joe Biden's $1.9 Trillion American Rescue Plan?," Jan. 15, 2021

Rev.com, Joe Biden First Speech as President: Full Transcript at Inauguration, Jan, 20, 2021 

The Wall Street Journal, Coronavirus Live Updates: U.S. Reports Second-Highest Number of Deaths in a Day, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Organizing and Mobilizing the United States Government to Provide a Unified and Effective Response to Combat COVID-19 and to Provide United States Leadership on Global Health and Security, Jan. 20, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing, Jan. 20, 2021

The White House, Letter to His Excellency António Guterres, Jan. 20, 2021

The White House, National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Establishing the COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board and Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Ensuring an Equitable Pandemic Response and Recovery, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on a Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Ensuring a Data-Driven Response to COVID-19 and Future High-Consequence Public Health Threats, Jan. 21, 2020

The White House, Executive Order on Improving and Expanding Access to Care and Treatments for COVID-19, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Memorandum to Extend Federal Support to Governors' Use of the National Guard to Respond to COVID-19 and to Increase Reimbursement and Other Assistance Provided to States, Jan. 21, 2020

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