President Biden has come storming out of the gate just days into his presidency. One of his first actions was to sign 10 separate Executive Orders focused on responding to and managing the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Unlike his predecessor, Biden has chosen not to create a task force or mobilize a military operation. Rather, he has outlined 10 directives, empowering the federal government and a slew of secretaries to do his bidding.

Executive Orders are generally pretty vague. They announce an overarching purpose or policy and a short outline of how it is to be accomplished. It is up to those organizations or individuals named therein to execute the finer details.

But with these 10 orders, Biden seems to be kicking open the door to a massive federal COVID-19 response that, in some cases, includes policies and parts of his political platform. It’s too early to tell how these orders will actually unfold, but they seem geared at unleashing the full might of the federal government onto just about every aspect of the coronavirus pandemic. In so doing, Biden is not only departing from state-led management of the pandemic but also paving the way for a robust federal response.

I. I am Thy Federal Coordinator

Executive Order on Organizing and Mobilizing the United States Government to Provide a Unified and Effective Response to Combat COVID-19 and to Provide United States Leadership on Global Health and Security

President Biden’s first Executive Order was designed to establish the new structure under which his COVID-19 response would operate. Seemingly doing away with Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, this order creates a new position, “Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response and Counselor to the President.” The Response Coordinator will report directly to President Biden and “advise and assist the President and executive departments and agencies in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The order goes on to say that the Response Coordinator will coordinate all aspects of the government’s COVID-19 response including: 

  • Coordinating the government-wide effort
  • Overseeing the federal production, supply, and distribution of PPE, vaccines, tests, and supplies
  • Expanding testing
  • Managing Vaccine delivery
  • Directing the reopening schools, childcare and ensuring the continuity of education
  • Coordinating with states, local, Tribal and territorial authorities

The Response Coordinator is more than just an administrator. The role will have the authority to “convene principals from relevant agencies” and will work closely with the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (APNSA) “on matters involving the global COVID-19 response.”

Under this relationship, the Response Coordinator will be responsible for managing the government’s response to biological threats by convening the National Security Council to assess and manage the threat response at the “intersection of the COVID-19 response and other national security equities; global health security; engaging with and strengthening the World Health Organization; public health, access to healthcare, and the secondary impacts of COVID-19; and emerging biological risks and threats, whether naturally occurring, deliberate, or accidental.” 

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The order appears to also call for a new directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. While not outlined in detail, it’s likely this directorate will fall under the command and control of the National Security Council.

Read the full Executive Order here.

II. Thy Mask Shall Be Worn

Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel

This Executive Order confirms what many have suspected the Biden Administration would do once in office: mandate the wearing of masks in several public areas including “airports, commercial aircraft, trains, public maritime vessels, including ferries, intercity bus services, all forms of public transportation.”

It also discusses protocols on international travelers coming into the United States and states “to the extent feasible” travelers seeking to enter the United States from a foreign country will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to travel, and must comply with all federal COVID-19 guidelines while in the country.

Read the full Executive Order here.

III. Honor thy Affordable Care Act

Executive Order on Improving and Expanding Access to Care and Treatments for COVID-19

This order mandates the increase of scientific testing of the virus with a special focus on the development of new treatments. It does not mention any of the organizations that were previously overseeing this process under Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, but it does not limit or define how this process will be undertaken. It’s possible that under the direction of the Response Coordinator the Army’s scientific team and others who had been at the forefront of the vaccine production will continue to operate in that role. 

The order does specify several areas of expansion. It mandates the increase of studies and trials for new treatments “that can be easily manufactured, distributed, and administered, both domestically and internationally.” It also identifies four main objectives: increased distribution of care and treatments to rural communities, focused study of the long-term health impacts of COVID-19, improving the healthcare system’s support of healthcare workers and patients, and improving access to healthcare. 

This last objective seems to open the door for an expansion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, and could allow the Response Coordinator to tack on additional provisions and directives in that vein. Still, the order does not mention the ACA or how it might be used under the administration to facilitate the directive. 

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Read the full Executive Order here.

IV. Record Thine COVID Data

Executive Order on Ensuring a Data-Driven Response to COVID-19 and Future High-Consequence Public Health Threats

This order is all about data. While it doesn’t go into much detail, it does stress the president’s desire to enhance data collection around the virus — presumably infections, contact tracing, and the like. It calls for a “stronger public health infrastructure” to help “prevent, detect, and respond to future biological threats” but does not outline what that means. 

It’s possible that under this order the federal government may explore a digital tracking system or even a national database to aid in what it calls “collaboration capabilities.” 

With the current vaccine requiring two doses, it is possible the goal of this order is to accurately track, on the national level, the uptake of the vaccine and monitor the successful administration of the follow-up shot. 

Read the full Executive Order here.

V. Thou Shalt Be Reimbursed

Memorandum to Extend Federal Support to Governors’ Use of the National Guard to Respond to COVID-19 and to Increase Reimbursement and Other Assistance Provided to States

At face value, this order is to incentivize the continued use of the National Guard to assist in the distribution and administration of the vaccine. To do this, President Biden has mobilized the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to fund one hundred percent of the “cost of activities associated with all mission assignments for the use of the National Guard to respond to COVID-19.”

FEMA, which is typically relied on to support states stricken with natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods, will now subsidize the expenditures of state-run National Guard efforts. 

The order does not provide any financial cap to the expenditures, but it does bake in an expiration date of September 30, 2021.

Read the full Executive Order here.

VI. Thou Shall Not Price Gouge

Executive Order on a Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain

Focusing on the supply chain, this order is to manage the pricing of “scarce materials the supply of which would be threatened by accumulation for the purpose of hoarding or price gouging.”

It clearly states that its purpose is to direct “immediate actions to secure supplies necessary for responding to the pandemic, so that those supplies are available, and remain available, to the Federal Government and State, local, Tribal, and territorial authorities, as well as to America’s health care workers, health systems, and patients. These supplies are vital to the Nation’s ability to reopen its schools and economy as soon and safely as possible.”

It also outlines a review and assessment of current supply stores. 

Read the full Executive Order here.

VII. Thy Response Shall Be Equitable

Executive Order on Ensuring an Equitable Pandemic Response and Recovery

“The Federal Government must take swift action to prevent and remedy differences in COVID-19 care and outcomes within communities of color and other underserved populations,” this order states. 

It does not detail how this will be accomplished, nor does it define “underserved populations.” But layered into it is a focus on “health equity” and a mandate to “identify and eliminate health and social inequities resulting in disproportionately higher rates of exposure, illness, and death.”

Read the full Executive Order here.

VIII. Honor Thy Teacher

Executive Order on Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers

There’s no doubt that the nation’s education system has been deeply impacted by the coronavirus. This order targets the reopening of schools nationwide and outlines several areas of new federal support to educators and child care providers — two major sides of the struggle that parents face.

It empowers the federal government to assist in the reopening of schools nationwide, beginning with elementary and secondary schools, followed by higher education. In so doing it concerns itself with “distance and online learning, blended learning, and in-person learning” and calls for the “promotion of mental health, social-emotional well-being, and communication with parents and families.”

It also empowers the government to “provide [the] guidance needed for child care providers and Head Start programs for safely reopening and operating, including procedures for mitigation measures such as cleaning, masking, proper ventilation, and testing, as well as guidance related to meeting the needs of children, families, and staff who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Further, it will unlock trauma care, behavior and mental health support and family support “as appropriate.”

Read the full Executive Order here.

IX. Remember the Work Day

Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety

This Executive Order is focused on keeping workers safe. Among its door-opening directives, it allows for  “emergency temporary standards” to be instituted, including mandating mask-wearing in the workplace. 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will oversee this move and will identify “any short-, medium-, and long-term changes that could be made to better protect workers and ensure equity in enforcement.”

Tacked on to the end of the order is a directive to several federal secretaries — the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of labor, the secretary of health and human services, the secretary of transportation, and the secretary of energy — to “explore mechanisms to protect workers.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only sector it addresses directly is the coal mining industry. It states that “the Secretary of Labor, acting through the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, shall consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19 applicable to coal and metal or non-metal mines are necessary and if such standards are determined to be necessary and consistent with applicable law, issue them as soon as practicable.”

Read the full Executive Order here.

X. Thou Shall Be Tested

Executive Order on Establishing the COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board and Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats

If the first nine Executive Orders weren’t clear enough, this order solidifies the president’s plan to make the COVID-19 response a government-wide federal operation with a “unified approach.”

It also mandates the establishment of a testing board that will oversee the increased administration of COVID-19 tests nationwide beginning with four echelons: the “priority population,” consisting of healthcare workers and essential workers; “communities with major shortages;” “At Risk Settings,” like long term care, correctional facilities, immigration custodial settings, detention facilities, schools, child care facilities, food processing, and manufacturing; and “High-Risk Groups,” including the homeless, migrants, and seasonal workers.

To accomplish this, the president is ordering the secretary of health and human services, the secretary of homeland security, the secretary of labor, the secretary of education, and the chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service — in coordination with the Response Coordinator — to submit “a plan to the President for establishing a national contact tracing and COVID-19 public health workforce program.”

This workforce program is outlined as the U.S. Public Health Job Corps and will be “modeled on or developed as a component of the FEMA Corps program.”  

The order goes on to say that the “plan shall include means by which the U.S. Public Health Job Corps can be part of the National Civilian Community Corps program, as well as recommendations about whether it would be appropriate for the U.S. Public Health Job Corps to immediately assign personnel from any of the agencies involved in the creation of the plan, including existing AmeriCorps members, to join or aid the U.S. Public Health Job Corps.” 

It specifies that the U.S. Public Health Job Corps will:

  • conduct and train individuals in contact tracing related to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • assist in outreach for vaccination efforts, including by administering vaccination clinics 
  • assist with training programs for State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments to provide testing, including in schools
  • provide other necessary services to Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

Read the full Executive Order here.

Conclusion

Again, it’s too early to know how these 10 Executive Orders will manifest. But one thing is abundantly clear: the Biden Administration is about the exercise the full power of the federal government. And while a swift snuffing out of the pandemic is high on everyone’s wish list, some may question the cost at which it comes.