President Biden on Wednesday signed executive orders intended to help curb America's coronavirus epidemic and took other actions that could affect federal health care policies—and his administration has signaled there's more to come.
Biden sets tone during inauguration, saying US 'can overcome' coronavirus epidemic
During his inauguration address on Wednesday, Biden said that the United States "can overcome" the coronavirus epidemic, even as the country approaches "what may be the toughest and deadliest period" of the public health crisis.
To do so, Biden said "[w]e must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation." He added, "We will get through this together."
Biden takes first actions to combat Covid-19
Hours after his inauguration, Biden signed 17 executive orders, memorandums, and proclamations, including some aimed at combating the coronavirus epidemic and economic hardships related to the crisis.
For example, Biden signed an executive order creating the role of a federal Covid-19 response coordinator who will be tasked with managing the country's Covid-19 response—including the distribution, production, and supply of personal protective equipment, vaccines, and testing supplies—across all levels of the government. Biden appointed Jeffrey Zients, who had served as an economic adviser to former President Barack Obama and played a key role in fixing the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) health insurance exchanges, to fill the role.
The executive order also reinstates the federal Global Health Security and Biodefense group under the National Security Council, which former President Donald Trump's administration had disbanded.
Biden also signed a separate executive order requiring all individuals, including federal employees and onsite contractors, in federal buildings and on federal lands to wear face masks and practice physical distancing. According to the Wall Street Journal, the executive order also applies to individuals on planes, trains, and other transit systems that are traveling between states. Further, the executive order creates the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force and directs federal agencies to determine if research grants can be made available to study best practices related to mask wearing and physical distancing.
In addition, the order directs HHS and CDC leaders to work with state, local, tribal, and territorial officials, as well community and business leaders, to encourage them to implement public health measures that can help to mitigate the novel coronavirus's spread. Biden, relatedly, announced the "100 Day Masking Challenge," which seeks to encourage Americans to voluntarily wear face masks and practice physical distancing in all public places.
Further, Biden's administration announced that the United States will take steps to reengage with the World Health Organization (WHO) to help coordinate the international response to the coronavirus pandemic. The move reverses action taken by Trump last July to withdraw the United States from WHO. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser for the Biden administration's Covid-19 response efforts, will lead the U.S. delegation to WHO's executive board and attend a WHO meeting on Thursday.
In addition, Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for secretary of state, during an interview this week said the United States would soon join COVAX, a global partnership led by WHO to distribute Covid-19 vaccine doses to low-income countries that are unable to procure their own supply.
Biden also took some executive actions aimed at easing economic hardships tied to America's coronavirus epidemic. For example, the New York Times reports that Biden called on CDC to extend a federal moratorium on housing evictions and urges other agencies—including the Departments of Agriculture, House and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs—to extend their moratoriums on foreclosures on federally guaranteed mortgages through the end of March. Biden also called on federal agencies to extend a suspension on federal student loan interest and payments through the end of September, according to the Times.
In addition, Rochelle Walensky, CDC's new director under the Biden administration, on Wednesday said CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat will lead a comprehensive review of all the agency's existing guidance related to Covid-19.
Documents circulated by Biden's administration that were obtained by several news outlets indicate Biden on Thursday will sign additional executive orders related to America's Covid-19 epidemic. The documents also indicate that Biden plans to sign executive orders related to the United States' economic crisis and other health care policies over the next few weeks.
Biden admin takes steps to block Trump's last-minute health regulations
Separately, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain on Wednesday issued a memo that directs leaders of federal agencies to immediately withdraw all rules and guidance documents issued during the Trump administration's final days that haven't yet been published.
Further, Klain in the memo directs leaders of federal agencies to consider postponing by 60 days the effective dates of any regulations issued by the Trump administration that have been published in the Federal Register but haven't yet taken effect. The memo recommends that agency heads open 30-day comment periods on affected regulations to allow interested parties to provide feedback and consider any pending petitions asking for federal officials to reconsider the regulations.
According to STAT News, the memo will apply to some regulations and guidance documents the Trump administration issued concerning health care, including recent actions that would alter FDA's authority over medical devices and other areas, Medicare drug coverage requirements, the Affordable Care Act exchanges, and more.
Moves come as America continues to grapple with coronavirus epidemic
Biden's health care actions come as America continues to report persistently high rates of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and as the country has struggled to quickly roll out its two authorized Covid-19 vaccines.
According to data compiled by the New York Times, U.S. officials on Wednesday reported about 184,754 new cases of the novel coronavirus. As of Thursday morning, officials had reported a total of about 24.4 million cases of the virus since America's epidemic began—up from about 24.3 million cases reported as of Wednesday morning.
According to the Times, the United States' average daily number of newly reported coronavirus cases over the past week was 194,754—which is down by 16% when compared with the average from two weeks ago.
As of Thursday morning, data from the Times showed that the rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying high" in Puerto Rico; the U.S. Virgin Islands; Washington, D.C.; and 19 states that have had a daily average of at least 15 newly reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week. Those states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming.\
The Times' data also showed that, as of Thursday morning, the daily average of newly reported cases over the past seven days was "going down" in 30 states that had been seeing comparatively higher rates of coronavirus transmission. Those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
In Hawaii and Guam, meanwhile, the rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying low" as of Thursday morning, according to the Times' analysis.
U.S. hospitalizations for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, also have remained high. According to data from The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, there were 122,700 Americans with Covid-19 hospitalized for treatment on Wednesday, including 22,809 who were receiving care in an ICU and 7,564 who were on a ventilator.
According to data from the Times, U.S. officials reported about 4,367 new deaths linked to the novel coronavirus on Wednesday. As of Thursday morning, officials had reported a total of about 406,190 U.S. deaths linked to the virus since the country's epidemic began, up from about 401,823 deaths reported as of Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, CDC data shows that, as of Wednesday morning, the federal government had distributed about 36 million doses of the country's authorized Covid-19 vaccines, and about 16.5 million Americans had received their first dose of the two-dose vaccines (Rovner, Kaiser Health News, 1/20; Kavi, New York Times, 1/20; Leary, Wall Street Journal, 1/20; Light, Bloomberg, 1/20; Samuels, The Hill, 1/20; Facher, STAT News, 1/20; Owens, "Vitals," Axios, 1/21; Florko, STAT+, 1/20 [subscription required]; Wang, Inside Health Policy, 1/20 [subscription required]; New York Times, 1/21; "The COVID Tracking Project," The Atlantic, accessed 1/21; CDC data, updated 1/20).