Biden Says COVID-19 Death Toll Will Soon Top 500,000

President Joe Biden issued executive orders to speed up testing and vaccine distribution, and to require masks on planes, trains, and buses.

President Joe Biden on Thursday said US deaths from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic will reach 500,000 by February, and that it will take months to “turn things around” after nearly a year without nationwide mask mandates and mixed messages from the White House under the former Trump administration.

Biden outlined a new national strategy a day after taking office that included executive actions and a proposed $1.9 trillion request from Congress, which would increase jobless benefits and offer direct cash payments to households. Other elements of the plan are designed to boost the availability to tests and vaccines, get children back into schools, make travel safer, and shore up state governments and small businesses.

Thursday’s actions came on the second day of Biden’s presidency as he sought to move quickly to defeat a pandemic that has killed more 404,000 Americans and infected more than 24 million in the year since it was detected.

The Biden administration will create a Pandemic Testing Board, which will allow manufacturing of tests to surge with demand; promote data collection for the government’s response to COVID-19 and research for new treatments, and direct the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enforce guidelines to protect workers.

Among the steps the Biden administration took Thursday:

  • Signed an executive order that requires people to wear masks in airports and on many planes, trains, and buses. Attendants have said passengers who refuse to follow the airlines’ mask rules have verbally abused workers and fellow passengers, and the airlines need stronger enforcement tools to promote safety;
  • Signed an order to accelerate the development of novel therapies, support research, and create equity in clinical trials, including rural areas;
  • Increased the ability of governors to use the National Guard to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, on a “fully reimbursable basis.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would fund the National Guard response to COVID-19 until September 30, 2021, including the reopening of schools, child-care centers, and health care facilities, homeless shelters, and transit centers.

Coupled with Biden’s order for masks on federal property, the requirement for masks during travel come close to create a national mask mandate if combined with state and local requirements. The order for masks during flights comes amid news of new variants of the virus reaching the United States.

“In addition to wearing masks, everyone flying to the United States from another country will need to test before they depart and quarantine when they arrive in America,” Biden said.

Despite calls from unions, consumer groups, and airlines themselves for such a mandate, the former Trump administration refused to create such a requirement.

Fauci Speaks Freely

The nation’s long-serving infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, MD, started the day by leading the US delegation to the World Health Organization, saying he was delivering letters “retracting” the nation’s withdrawal from WHO. Fauci, who is now the nation’s chief medical adviser, said the United States would restore WHO staff and meet its financial obligations.

Later, he appeared in the White House briefing room, and said it was “liberating” to be able to speak his mind on the evidence on COVID-19. “The idea that you can get up here and you can talk about what you know, what evidence, what the science is, and know that’s it – let the science speak,” he said. “It is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”

Fauci was often in a difficult spot when Trump gave incorrect answers on COVID-19, refused to wear a mask, and appeared not to take the pandemic seriously. But he contradicted the idea that there was no vaccine distribution plan when the new administration arrived; Trump’s team left much up to the states but did not offer any additional funding.

"We're coming in with fresh ideas, but also some ideas that were not bad ideas with the previous administration. You can't say it was absolutely not usable at all," Fauci said. "It's taking what's going on, but amplifying it in a big way.”