The news: President Biden has said it will take a "wartime effort" to tackle the covid-19 pandemic as he unveiled a seven-point plan on his first full day in the job. He pledged to be guided by science, and to make transparency and accountability core values for his administration's response. The plan is a distillation of a 200-page strategy document which sets out his intentions, some of which have already started to be put into action through executive orders. Thousands of Americans are currently dying of covid-19 every day, and the US death toll is just weeks away from reaching half a million, so the task could not be more urgent.
So what's the plan?
- Implement mask mandates nationwide by working with mayors and governors to set up local orders, and asking individual Americans to wear masks when they are around people outside their household.
- Ensure all Americans have access to free testing by doubling the number of drive-through sites, investing at-home and instant tests, setting up a Pandemic Testing Board to produce and distribute tests, and create a US Public Health Jobs Corps to enlist at least 100,000 Americans to do contact tracing and other public health tasks.
- Fix persistent problems with personal protective equipment by fully using the Defense Production Act to ramp up production, and ensuring the US is able to produce PPE independently of other countries in future.
- Provide clear, evidence-based public health guidance about social distancing, and get the CDC to give communities clear guidance on when to "dial" measures like school closures, stay-at-home orders or restaurant restrictions up or down relative to the level of risk and degree of viral spread. Provide emergency funding for state and local governments, schools, and small businesses so they can follow these orders.
- Plan for all Americans to get treatments and free vaccines by investing $25 billion in manufacturing and distribution, ensuring vaccine development is a politics-free zone, and tackling issues like pharma product price-gouging as they emerge.
- Protect older Americans and others at high risk by setting up a Covid-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Taskforce to provide recommendations and oversight, and creating a Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard so Americans can see the levels of local transmission in their area in real-time.
- Expand the US's defences to prevent future pandemics by restoring the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, rejoining the WHO, re-launching a pathogen-tracking program called PREDICT, and expanding the number of CDC disease detectives.
Now comes the action: Biden has already put some of this into practice, signing 10 executive orders yesterday. They include a new requirement for Americans to wear masks on public transport, the creation of the Pandemic Testing Board, and an order for new guidance to be created for schools and businesses. But he still faces significant political obstacles, with uncertainty over whether Republicans in Congress will agree to pass a $1.9 trillion relief package to pay for the measures.