Biden looks to overhaul pandemic response

Controlling virus is top priority for new president

BENEATH THE USUAL pomp and circumstance of inauguration day was one underlying feeling — urgency. Urgency to address deep divisions involving race and inequity, urgency to roll back some of former President Donald Trump’s hundreds of immigration changes. But above all else was the urgency to address a problem that was omnipresent as hundreds of socially distant attendees watched Joe Biden slip off his mask to take the presidential oath. 

The US passed the devastating milestone of 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 on the eve of the inauguration. The US accounts for nearly 1 of every 5 virus deaths reported worldwide, and over 120,000 people are currently hospitalized here with the virus. The total number of deaths in Massachusetts rose to 13,829 on Wednesday.

Health experts contend that the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic response led to thousands of avoidable deaths. Biden is setting the stage for a massive overhaul of the federal response to the pandemic.

Part of what Biden will deal with, even before his $1.9 trillion stimulus and recovery plan is debated, is getting the US respected on the world stage for its handling of the pandemic and willingness to collaborate with other countries.

Earlier this month, Biden promised 100 million vaccinations will go into the arms of Americans in his first 100 days, an ambitious goal. On day one, Biden tapped Dr. Anthony Fauci to lead a delegation at the World Health Organization’s annual meetings this week, reversing Trump’s plan to withdraw from the global health agency. Trump’s announcement to leave the WHO last April  which would not have technically been final until this July drew strong criticism from both sides of the aisle. The former president spun a fictional tale about how the organization was “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” while he was simultaneously publicly minimizing the disease in the US.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who opposed a nationwide mask mandate,  resigned at Biden’s request on Wednesday. Dr. Vivek Murthy, who served in that role during the Obama administration, will be appointed by Biden to return to the post.

Before his inauguration, Biden challenged the public to wear masks for 100 days to slow the spread of COVID-19. After his swearing-in, Biden issued an executive order requiring masks and social distancing on federal lands, in government buildings, and by federal employees and contractors. He signed an order creating the position of coordinator of the COVID-19 response and mandating a restructuring of the federal government’s approach to the pandemic. He’s bringing in Jeff Zients, a former management consultant, for the job. According to the Financial Times, Zients, who is not a scientist, was dubbed “Mr. Fix It” when he worked in the Obama administration for his skill turning around failing government projects. 

Zients told reporters on Wednesday that Biden plans more executive orders and directives, including a requirement for travelers to wear masks on planes, buses, and in airports, and offering more guidance on school reopenings.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Biden is also bringing back an Obama-era position called the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was organized with additional staff within the National Security Council after the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

Biden released his COVID-19 relief plan before he took office, an initiative that would invest $20 billion in a national vaccine program and $50 billion more for COVID testing. The infusion of cash can’t come soon enough. Last week, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the federal government’s reserve for second shots no longer existed, meaning health officials will have to work with a limited supply of existing vaccines. The news sent some governors (although not Gov. Charlie Baker) into an uproar over communications issues on vaccine rollout.