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January 21, 2021

President Biden begins revamping America's COVID-19 response

Among the new coronavirus policies, masks must be worn in federal buildings, on federal land and while traveling by plane or other forms of public transportation

Health News COVID-19
Biden COVID Executive Orders Hannah Gaber/USA Today

One of President Joe Biden's first actions was signing an executive order mandating face masks be worn in federal buildings and on federal land.

President Joe Biden signed more than a dozen executive orders, memorandums and proclamations after taking the oath of office Wednesday, addressing the coronavirus pandemic and reversing some of former President Donald Trump's polices. 

On Thursday, Biden is expected to issue a new national strategy designed to make COVID-19 tests and vaccines more abundant and reopen schools safely.

RELATED: Philly's official COVID-19 vaccine website goes online; residents can sign-up to be notified about getting their shots

His myriad directives are aimed at mitigating the spread of a virus that has claimed more than 400,000 American lives. They call for boosting mask compliance, increasing inoculations and passing a $1.9 trillion economic relief and coronavirus response package. 

"We're entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus," Biden said during his inaugural address. "We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation. One nation."

One of Biden's first actions was to sign a mandate requiring face masks and physical distancing in federal buildings and on federal land, a policy that affects all federal employees. Face masks also are now required during travel on planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation, NBC reported. 

It's not the national mask mandate he campaigned on. Such a policy likely would have fallen to a legal challenge, the New York Times reported. Instead, Biden launched a "100 days masking challenge" that urges Americans to don face masks, a proven way to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Biden also reversed the Trump administration's decision to leave the World Health Organization, fulfilling a campaign pledge, and revived a global health unit in the National Security Council to oversee pandemic preparedness and response, The Washington Post reported.

The coronavirus-related orders extended beyond public health mandates to address the economic toll caused by the pandemic, too. 

Biden requested the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extend a federal eviction moratorium through March — a request quickly granted by the agency's new director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. He also asked three other agencies to expand foreclosure moratoriums on federally-granted mortgages through March. And he moved to put student loan debt repayment on pause until September. 

"These are emergency measures that will help to make sure that no American is put in the place of having to make the decision to pay their student loan payment or put food on the table in the short term and will help to provide some near-term relief," Brian Deese, the new director of White House National Economic Council, told the Post.

Not everyone was on board with these changes. Some Republicans in Congress have spoken out against Biden's executive actions.

"President Trump created the best economy in the world by limiting bureaucratic regulations, and President Biden should seek to build on this success instead of diminishing it," U.S. Rep. James Comer, of Kentucky, told the Post. "Government does not know best, the American people do."

Biden is expected to sign an additional 10 executive orders and presidential memorandums, including the creation of a Pandemic Testing Board to increase capacity for coronavirus tests, The Washington Post reported

Biden's efforts to expand testing and vaccine availability tie into a larger goal of doling out 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office, which Biden's COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffery Zients called "ambitious and achievable."

Vaccination centers are being set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, per Biden's direction, and the CDC will begin a program to make vaccines available through local pharmacies next month, NBC reported.

Biden also will order the establishment of a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to ensure minority and underserved communities are not left out of the government's response.

Aides say Biden will stick to his plan to invoke the Defense Production Act that will compel companies to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine production for national security. This will boost the manufacturing of vaccine components essential for production and administration.

"The idea there is to make sure the personal protective equipment, the test capacity and the raw materials for the vaccine are produced in adequate supply," Dr. Celine Gounder, a member of Biden's COVID-19 advisory board, told CNBC.

In his inaugural address, Biden listed the pandemic as one of six major crises the U.S. is facing. The others included climate change, growing inequality, racism, America's global standing and an attack on truth and democracy.

"Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways," Biden said. "But the fact is, we face them all at once. We will be judged — you and I — by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era."

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