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How Biden's Administration Is Prioritizing The COVID-19 Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Among that flurry of executive orders, President Biden signed several aimed at trying to jump-start the fight against the virus. He's also touting his administration's 200-page battle plan. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Rob, thanks for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: A really different tone from the White House about the pandemic from what we heard just a few days ago in a previous administration. Are there changes of action to go along with the rhetoric?

STEIN: Well, you know, it certainly represents a dramatic change of tone. As we all know, the Trump administration consistently downplayed the pandemic and essentially punted much of the fight against the virus to the states. That led to a disorganized patchwork response widely considered to be a big reason why the U.S. became the epicenter of the pandemic.

In contrast, the Biden administration is warning in stark terms that COVID-19 is the gravest threat to the nation and promising that the federal government will take a much more aggressive, you know, nationally coordinated approach from everything from testing to vaccines instead of leaving the states to fend for themselves.

As an example, instead of ridiculing people who wear masks, Biden issued a mask mandate on federal property and for interstate travel and immediately unleashed federal scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci instead of sidelining them. Here's Dr. Fauci on All Things Considered last night when he was asked his reaction when told everything at the White House would be based on science.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: I said, do I - hallelujah, you know? That's a very liberating feeling, where people don't have to be worried about when you're saying something that you're going to get pushback from your own team.

STEIN: But you know, Scott, we'll have to see where this translates into meaningful action, you know, especially if Congress doesn't come up with the billions of dollars needed to pay for all of this.

SIMON: Of course, one of the promises the Biden administration has made is to essentially kick-start the vaccination campaign. What does that look like?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, there's been a lot of confusion and frustration about the vaccination campaign so far. The federal government has distributed more than 39 million doses of vaccine, but the CDC says only about 19 million doses have actually gotten into people's arms.

The new administration is promising to administer at least 100 million doses in the first 100 days and planning a number of steps to try to make that happen, including enlisting FEMA to run as many as a hundred mass vaccination sites around the country and invoking the Defense Production Act to make sure there are enough supplies, such as, you know, syringes to extract every last dose from every vial.

SIMON: Rob, 100 million doses in 100 days - I mean, it is a lot, but is it enough?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, some say it isn't fast enough, you know, that the U.S. should be shooting for double or maybe even triple that to beat back the virus, especially when we've already hit about a million shots a day by now. You know, and while the pandemic looks like it may finally have stopped accelerating in the U.S., tens of thousands of people are still getting infected. Thousands are still dying every day. So the country is still in a race with this virus to try to save as many lives as possible. And the virus could easily surge again if the vaccination campaign doesn't finally speed up, if people aren't careful and if any of those new, more contagious strains take off.

SIMON: And there are some new worries about the U.K. strain, right? Could you tell us?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The British government just announced that in addition to being more contagious, the U.K. variant may actually be more deadly, too. Now, the evidence for that at this point isn't that strong, but it's just another reason why it's important for people not to let down their guard and that the country vaccinate as many people as fast as possible.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.