WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden on Wednesday (Jan 20) will immediately reset the nation's response to the COVID-19 crisis when he heads to the Oval Office after being sworn in to lead a country reeling from its worst public health crisis in more than a century.
As part of a first sweep of executive actions, Biden will order that all federal employees wear masks and make face coverings mandatory on federal property. He will establish a new White House office to coordinate the coronavirus response and halt the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization, a process initiated by former President Donald Trump.
The Biden administration also made clear this week that it intends to join the COVAX alliance, an initiative that is led by the World Health Organization and two other groups and aims to secure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries.
Biden's nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told his US Senate confirmation hearing that the United States would join the alliance of some 190 countries in working to make sure that the vaccine is equitably distributed.
These actions by Biden will mark a sharp divergence from the Trump administration's pandemic response, which critics say was ineffectual, uncoordinated and at least partly responsible for the death of more than 400,000 Americans.
Minutes after Biden took his oath of office at a scaled-back inauguration ceremony unlike any other in US history, he asked onlookers to join him in a silent prayer for the Americans who perished from COVID-19.
"We're entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus and must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation," Biden said.
He delivered his inaugural speech looking out across the National Mall, which was covered in a "field of flags" instead of typical inauguration crowds since citizens were told to stay home to avoid the risk of contagion.
Biden was also poised to nominate an acting US surgeon general as soon as Wednesday, a person familiar with the decision told MSNBC, following the resignation of Trump appointee Jerome Adams.
SETTING NEW NATIONAL EXAMPLE
Biden's executive actions, particularly the mask mandate, are intended to set an example for state and local officials to rein in the virus, which has hobbled the US economy.
The United States has reported nearly 200,000 new COVID-19 cases and 3,000 deaths per day on a seven-day rolling average, according to Reuters data. More than 123,000 Americans were hospitalised with COVID-19 as of Wednesday.
Biden's federal mask mandate plan drew praise from the nation's top business lobby on Wednesday, with US Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark calling it "a smart and practical approach".
Scientists and public health experts have said face masks can help prevent the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, but the coverings have become a flashpoint in American life reflecting the nation's larger political divide.
Trump, who contracted COVID-19 last autumn, had eschewed their use at all but a few events and held crowded, largely maskless campaign rallies. Biden's campaign initially stuck to virtual events before expanding to other masked and socially distant gatherings.
There were few face masks as Trump departed Washington Wednesday morning. In remarks to the crowd at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Trump again painted his administration as a victim of the virus and listed a series of accomplishments such as tax cuts, deregulation and stock market gains before addressing COVID-19 deaths.
"We got hit. Nobody blames us for that. The whole world got it," he said of the pandemic's toll on the economy. He later touted the development of a vaccine as a "miracle" before paying his respects to people and families impacted by the virus.