On Day Zero of the presidential administration of Joe Biden, the single priority of the federal government must be Covid-19. Without torquing the numbers of deaths and infections downward, no other policy—economic improvement, immigration reform, even a serious approach to stopping climate change—can happen. And that sentence works in reverse too; dealing with Covid-19 is dealing with all that other stuff.
Like any big machine, the federal government’s public health system takes time and energy to come up to speed. It hasn’t functioned at its peak efficiency during the administration of Donald Trump. So nothing will change at first. And then something will. And then everything will.
Assuming all goes as planned. For the last year, nothing has gone as planned, when there was a plan at all.
So, the new plan: Last week, Biden laid out a new, more aggressive approach, part of a promise to let science lead policy during his term. The US public health system, broken and underfunded, hasn’t been able to cope with the pandemic, leaving vaccines as the best and only hope, for now, of controlling it. But for all the blazing speed of their development and testing, vaccine rollout has been, in Biden’s (and everyone else’s) words, “a dismal failure.” Biden has now set a goal of giving 100 million shots of vaccine in the first 100 days of the administration. (As of January 19, the number in the US was 14.7 million, according to Bloomberg’s tracker.)
That won’t be easy, but it is possible. Biden proposed opening up who’s allowed to get vaccinated—sidestepping the tier system recommended to states by various government panels in an attempt to ensure equity along with speedy shot-giving. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will build 100 mass vaccination centers in places like stadiums and convention centers, and the feds will deploy mobile vaccination clinics as well—run, Biden said, by FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and staffed by the public health corps, retired medical professionals, even the military.
Of course, to make all that work, the government will need to increase vaccine production and improve distribution. Last week, outgoing Health and Human Services secretary Alexander Azar also proposed releasing doses that had been “held back” to guarantee the second shots required by both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and opening up vaccinations to everyone over 65 years old. That was just before The Washington Post reported that there wasn’t enough vaccine to go around. “Our plan is as clear as it is bold: Get more people vaccinated for free. Create more places for them to get vaccinated. Mobilize more medical teams to get shots into people’s arms. Increase supply and get it out the door as soon as possible,” Biden said on Friday. “This is going to be one of the most challenging efforts ever undertaken by our country, but you have my word, we will manage the hell out of this operation.”
(Biden also said he’d mandate mask-wearing wherever federal policy allowed him to do so, and ask everyone else to mask up. That’s one of the only public health efforts that could have some real effect, but the politicization of mask use has hampered its effectiveness. “Quite frankly, it was shocking to see members of Congress, while the capitol was under siege by a deadly mob of thugs, refuse to wear masks while they were in secure locations,” Biden said. “Republican colleagues refusing to put them on—what the hell’s the matter with them? It’s time to grow up.”)