Biden mandates masks for travel, renews support for World Health Organization

Biden’s top medical adviser on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also announced renewed U.S. support for the World Health Organization.

By Associated Press

As the U.S. enters “what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” President Joe Biden is putting forth a national COVID-19 strategy to ramp up vaccinations and testing, reopen schools and businesses and increase the use of masks — including a requirement that they be worn for travel.

Biden also will address inequities in hard-hit minority communities as he signs 10 pandemic-related executive orders on Thursday, his second day in office. However, details were few.

“We need to ask average Americans to do their part,” said Jeff Zients, the White House official directing the national response. “Defeating the virus requires a coordinated nationwide effort.”

They’re also depending on Congress to provide $1.9 trillion for economic relief and COVID-19 response. And they face a litany of complaints from states that say they are not getting enough vaccine even as they are being asked to vaccinate more categories of people.

Biden’s top medical adviser on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also announced renewed U.S. support for the World Health Organization after it faced blistering criticism from the Trump administration, laying out new commitments to tackle the coronavirus and other global health issues.

Fauci said early Thursday that the U.S. will join the U.N. health agency’s efforts to bring vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to people in need, whether in rich or poor countries and will resume full funding and staffing support for WHO.

The U.S. mask order for travel being implemented by Biden will apply to airports and planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation. Travelers from abroad must furnish a negative COVID-19 test before departing for the U.S. and quarantine upon arrival. Biden has already mandated masks on federal property.

Although airlines, Amtrak and other transport providers now require masks, Biden’s order makes it a federal mandate, leaving little wiggle room for passengers tempted to argue about their rights.

It marks a sharp break with the Trump administration, under which masks were optional, and Trump made a point of going maskless and hosting big gatherings of like-minded supporters.

Biden also is seeking to expand testing and vaccine availability, with the goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. Zients called Biden’s goal “ambitious and achievable.”

However, some independent experts say the administration should be setting a higher bar for itself than 100 million shots. During flu season, the U.S. is able to vaccinate about 3 million people a day, said Dr. Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.

“Given the number of people dying from COVID, we could and should do more — like what we’re able to do on seasonal flu,” he said.

Betsy McCaughey. chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths and a former lieutenant governor of New York, wrote recently, 100 million shots “will not do the job. It is barely half of what is needed. A staggering 1.8 million people a day need to be vaccinated between now and the end of May to achieve herd immunity by July, according to the American Hospital Association.”

As part of his COVID-19 strategy, Biden will order the establishment of a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to ensure that minority and underserved communities are not left out of the government’s response.

Surveys have shown vaccine hesitancy is high among African Americans, a problem the administration plans to address through an education campaign.

But Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the top White House health adviser on minority communities, said she’s not convinced that race should be a factor in vaccination. Disparities seem to have more to do with risky jobs and other life circumstances.

“It’s not inherent to race,” she said. “It’s from the exposures.”