Here we are, in what Joe Biden lamented in his inaugural address as our “winter of peril.” America has lost more than 400,000 to COVID-19 in the past year, and is expected to suffer 100,000 more deaths in the coming weeks. Cases continue to surge as what seem to be more infectious strands of the virus take hold across the country. Two highly effective vaccines, and more candidates likely to be approved in the near future, give officials hope that the United States could begin returning to at least some semblance of a pre-pandemic normal by this fall—but the rollout has been abysmal so far, and the lack of planning by the previous administration has forced Biden and his team to start from square one.
Biden may have volunteered to fix the mess, but it’s still an unenviable task. As he acknowledged during his first speech to the nation as president, America is entering the “toughest and deadliest” stretch of a pandemic that has already taken so much. But even in plainly stating that fact, he was improving upon his predecessor. A major part of the failure in the U.S. response to the crisis over the past year was Donald Trump’s refusal to tell hard truths about situation; he minimized the crisis constantly, leading his legions of followers to do the same, and undermined common-sense measures that reflected the danger the virus has posed, like railing against testing and muzzling experts. Just in his first days in office, Biden has dramatically reversed course: He signed executive orders to ramp up testing, mandated mask-wearing where he could and called for nationwide compliance, and brought people like Anthony Fauci off the sideline.
“The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence and science is, and know that it’s—let the science speak—it is somewhat of a liberating feeling,” a markedly more upbeat Fauci told reporters in a briefing Thursday.
Whether he can restore trust in the government and the experts, and how long it will take, are open questions, but he’s saying and doing the right things so far. To some extent, though, all that constitutes the easy part of the undertaking ahead of him. More challenging will be the logistical puzzle of getting those vaccines into Americans’ arms. He has pledged 100 million shots in his first 100 days, which will require the country to double its current pace. That’s “absolutely doable,” according to Fauci, but it’ll require treating the mass vaccination effort less like the annual flu shot, as is the case right now, and more like the emergency campaign it is. “This is a wartime undertaking,” Biden said in remarks outlining his COVID response plan Thursday.
To that end, Biden in an executive order invoked the Defense Production Act as part of a plan to ensure vaccine manufacturing continues at a sufficient pace, and is involving the federal government in the administration of vaccines rather than putting most of the onus on states, including by using the Federal Emergency Management Agency to operate as many as 100 vaccination sites. It’s an ambitious plan, and not all of it can be pulled off unilaterally. Much will depend on congressional approval, which could face hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans say the president’s proposed COVID relief plan won’t get the 60 votes it needs to pass without significant concessions. Biden is already improving the government’s response by doing the simple things—emphasizing testing, health precautions, and honesty and expertise. But the more complex issues still loom large, and could be made more complicated by the continued politicization of the crisis.
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