A drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Beltzville State Park in Lehighton, Pa., Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden announced a sprawling 200-page national pandemic strategy on Thursday, including an increase to testing capacity. (Hilary Swift / The New York Times)
WASHINGTON – At a White House event on Thursday, President Joe Biden presented a list of presidential decrees and regulations aimed at accelerating the production of supplies to address COVID-19, increase testing capacity and require the use of masks on interstate routes, which is part of a 200-page document that develops the grand strategy that it will implement nationwide against the pandemic.
Taken together, these provisions highlight Biden’s initial priorities that he wants to organize more centralized work at the federal level to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Some of them reiterate measures taken during the Trump administration, but most seek to change course.
Here we present the objectives of those provisions.
Increase manufacturing and testing speed
One of the measures urges the directors of the agencies to detect the shortage of items such as personal protective equipment and vaccine supplies, and identify where the government could benefit from the Defense Production Act in order to increase manufacturing . The White House has said it could use this Korean War-era law, the same law that the Trump administration used to develop vaccines, with the goal of increasing production of a type of syringe that allows pharmacists draw one more dose from the vaccine vials.
Biden’s team has said it identified twelve critical “immediate supply shortages” for fighting the pandemic, including N95 surgical masks and isolation gowns, as well as swabs, reagents and pipettes used for testing.
“When it comes to screening for asymptomatic people, sadly we have a lack of capacity, so we need the money to be able to seriously increase testing, which is very important for the reopening of schools and businesses,” said Jeffrey Zients, the new coordinator for the White House coronavirus response.
Another provision institutes a Council for Pandemic Testing, an idea inspired by the War Production Council instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to increase testing. The new government is promising to increase the supply of rapid tests in the country, double the supply of tests and expand the space of the laboratories for these tests and the surveillance of the places with the highest incidence of coronavirus.
“This initiative will ensure that we take testing where it is needed and where it is most needed, helping schools and businesses reopen safely and protect the most vulnerable people, like those who live in long-term care facilities, ”Biden said in his comments Thursday.
Require the use of face masks on interstate routes
Biden has vowed to use his powers as president to promote the use of masks wherever he has the legal authority to do so, including on federal land and routes that cross state lines. One of the regulations issued on Thursday calls for the use of face masks at airports and on many airplanes, buses and trains that travel between cities.
The same provision requires international travelers to verify that they have a negative coronavirus test before traveling to the United States and that they comply with quarantine guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, for its acronym in English). ) when they have landed.
Develop better data collection systems
One of the provisions requests the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the White House coronavirus response coordinator to re-evaluate the federal government’s systems for data collection regarding COVID-19 and to publish a report on your findings. It also encourages the heads of all “executive departments and agencies” to come together and share information related to the coronavirus.
The Trump administration struggled last year to establish a centralized system, and pitted conflicting programs from the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC. Alex Azar, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, ordered hospitals to send daily reports on coronavirus cases to a private provider for transmission to a central database in Washington, and not to the CDC, which used to be the responsible for storing the data. This decision, which remains in effect, upset the CDC scientists.
Form a work team for equity in health care
Another of the provisions creates a “work team to promote equity in health matters”, which will recommend how to obtain more financing for the segments of the population especially affected by the virus, by analyzing the needs by race, ethnic origin, geography and disability, among other factors. Biden said Thursday that the team would resolve questions about whether or not to get the vaccine.
The panel, based at the Department of Health and Human Services, is part of a large effort by the Biden administration to draw more attention to racial and ethnic inequalities to access health care, as minorities have been hospitalized and have died from COVID-19 in considerably higher numbers. Biden appointed Marcella Nunes-Smith, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, Public Health, and Management at Yale University as the leader of this task force.
Publish guidelines for schools and workers
Biden released a provision aimed at protecting workers’ health during the pandemic, calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue new guidelines for employees. This provision also asks this body to intensify the application of existing rules to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace.
The president also urged the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to publish new guidelines on how to reopen schools safely, which was a major source of controversy over the summer when the White House and health department authorities lobbied to the CDC not to place so much importance on the risk of students returning to classrooms.
Finding more treatments for COVID-19 and future pandemics
The Biden administration convened the secretary of Health and Human Services and the director of the National Institutes of Health to draft a plan to support the study of new drugs against COVID-19 and future health crises through extensive randomized trials. Treatments must “be easily manufactured, distributed and administered, both nationally and internationally.”
The emphasis on randomized trials stems from two emergency authorizations – convalescent plasma and hydroxychloroquine for malaria – that flagged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year. Federal health authorities – including FDA officials – remain upset that, under pressure from the Trump administration, the agency had to authorize these treatments without strong evidence from randomized trials.