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Biden Takes 1st Executive Actions To Fight The Coronavirus Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is the first full day of the Biden administration, and the president says there is going to be a new approach to the pandemic. He did acknowledge there may still be many challenges ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will level with you when we make a mistake. We'll straight up say what happened. And I said at the outset, the honest truth is we're still in a dark winter of this pandemic.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden says by next month, the U.S. may reach a number that once seemed unthinkable - half-a-million Americans dead of COVID-19. Today, he signed 10 executive actions to show how his team is moving forward. And to explain, we're joined by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Good to have you both back.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tam, to start with you, we saw Dr. Anthony Fauci return to the briefing room today. He was a fixture early on in the COVID crisis as part of President Trump's task force. After that, we didn't see much of him. And his demeanor today seemed really different. Tell us about what he said.

KEITH: Yeah, he noted that he had often been in trouble with Trump for contradicting him on things like hydroxychloroquine or otherwise disagreeing with the former president's push to get the country reopened before it was safe. And after a bit of prodding, Fauci admitted that appearing in the briefing room today, not having to worry about the consequences of what would happen if he contradicted the president, that he felt liberated. Now, he insisted he never pulled his punches with Trump, and that is probably why he eventually got banished. But when he was asked about the difference, he said he had just been in a meeting with President Biden.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: One of the things that was very clear as recently as about 15 minutes ago, when I was with the president, is that one of the things that we're going to do is to be completely transparent, open and honest. If things go wrong, not point fingers, but to correct them and to make everything we do be based on science and evidence.

KEITH: So Fauci and Biden have made the calculation that radical transparency, even if it isn't good news, will help build public trust that they will need to convince at least some share of the public to get vaccinated.

SHAPIRO: And, Selena, even as we're looking at this dire number of half-a-million Americans dead of the virus, Fauci painted a fairly optimistic picture of where we're going from here. Tell us what he said.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that's right. He said that the surge in cases that we've seen this winter seems to have plateaued. And our colleague Rob Stein actually reported this morning that cases seem to have started to slow already. He also said that hospital capacity is looking less dire as well. He talked about the variants of the virus. He called them mutants in the U.K. and what he called a more concerning variant in South Africa and Brazil. He said that there's not current evidence that those variants are in the U.S. right now but that the U.S. doesn't have great genetic surveillance, so it's hard to be certain about that.

And Fauci also mentioned, at this point, it does seem like the vaccines that have been authorized do work against these new variants. Even if they're slightly less effective, that's still really helpful. And probably most optimistic, he forecasted that the country could get close to normalcy by the fall.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about the executive actions that the president signed. Tam, what is President Biden planning to do?

KEITH: Last week, he talked about his broad strategy - speeding up vaccinations, his goal of 100 shots in 100 days. Today, he signed actions that begin to put those things in action. Part of this is all about signaling, signaling the importance that he is placing on fixing the crisis in the country and signaling that he is taking a fresh approach, a break from the former Trump approach. That said, Fauci said they aren't starting from scratch. There is something that they are able to work with - something.

SHAPIRO: OK, so let's talk about what the difference is because you've both covered the response to the pandemic from the beginning. Selena, what do you see as the biggest differences between the Biden approach and the Trump approach?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, let's just start with this 200-page document, the national strategy document that Biden released today. The Trump administration never put out a public document like that. A lot of the decisions were really delegated to the states. Operation Warp Speed certainly succeeded in getting effective and safe vaccines authorized in record time, but testing strategies were left to state and local governments. And so there are 60-something different vaccine distribution plans drafted this fall and driving the rollouts in each state and territory.

So the fact that Trump did not have a national plan is in part why the response has been so uneven and disjointed. And the challenge now is going to be to transition from that patchwork to a more unified approach in a year into the pandemic response and turn that pile of papers into action in the real world.

SHAPIRO: As you've reported, Selena, many of the executive actions taken early on in the Trump administration were challenged in courts. Some were ultimately blocked. Could these actions get tied up with legal challenges, too?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I think that's much less likely, according to the legal experts that I've been speaking to, for a couple of reasons. First of all, remember when the CDC put out its eviction moratorium last fall? Well, Lindsay Wiley, who's a health law professor at American University, points out that was challenged in court, and so far, the rulings have upheld the federal government's authority to act in this public health emergency, and that's a promising precedent here. And she also points out that Biden is not putting out something like a national mask mandate. Instead, he's choosing a more cautious approach, mandating masks on federal property and on interstate travel. And that's much less vulnerable to potential legal challenges.

SHAPIRO: We have seen such a flood of policy changes just in the last 24 hours. Tam, what do you expect the next stage to look like?

KEITH: Oh, the flood is going to keep coming.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KEITH: The White House has a plan for just a flurry of additional actions based on Biden's top priorities - COVID today; we're expecting the economy, racial justice, climate over the next few days. But the big question remains - what can he do with Congress? Executive action only takes you so far. He proposed this $1.9 trillion COVID relief package and, again, today argued that it needs to happen, that it's urgent, that it's a crisis. But he's getting a lot of pushback from Congress, Republicans in Congress, and it's not clear how fast they can act, even if they do want to do it.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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