US virus deaths likely to top half a million in Feb

Biden orders test, quarantine for overseas arrivals to fight Covid-19

Covid-19 patients in a makeshift intensive care unit in a hospital in Torrance, California, on Thursday. President Joe Biden's administration will act to mobilise more medical teams to get shots in people's arms and to increase vaccine supply, but ma
Covid-19 patients in a makeshift intensive care unit in a hospital in Torrance, California, on Thursday. President Joe Biden's administration will act to mobilise more medical teams to get shots in people's arms and to increase vaccine supply, but masks are necessary in the interim and could save 50,000 lives between now and April if worn, he said. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Coronavirus deaths in the United States will likely top 500,000 next month, said President Joe Biden on Thursday, in a sobering reality check for the nation as he signed 10 new executive orders and unveiled a comprehensive national strategy to defeat the raging pandemic.

"Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better," he said. "We didn't get into this mess overnight. It's going to take months for us to turn things around."

He added: "But we will get through this. We will defeat this pandemic... Help is on its way."

Mr Biden's plan includes mounting an aggressive vaccination campaign, requiring masks on interstate travel and international travellers to quarantine, and equipping schools to reopen safely.

He also announced a "full-scale, wartime effort" to address the shortage of personal protective equipment and other items and materials needed for testing and vaccinations, by invoking the Defence Production Act.

The law lets the government mobilise companies to prioritise producing the necessary equipment.

"Four hundred thousand Americans have died. That's more than (the number of Americans who) have died in all of World War II. Four hundred thousand. This is a wartime undertaking," he said.

Vaccinations are a core part of the Biden national strategy, which aims to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office.

"We will move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated for free and create more places for them to get vaccinated," said Mr Biden, who called the vaccine roll-out "a dismal failure thus far" in a condemnation of his predecessor Donald Trump's Covid-19 policies.

His administration will act to mobilise more medical teams to get shots in people's arms and to increase vaccine supply, he added.

But masks are necessary in the interim to slow the spread of the virus and could save 50,000 lives between now and April if worn, said Mr Biden. He signed an order mandating masks in airports and on trains, planes and buses.

People flying into the US from other countries will also have to show a recent negative Covid-19 test before departure and get quarantined upon arrival.

Mr Biden vowed that his administration's national strategy would be based on "science, not politics".

The President also promised that public health experts would work free from political interference and make decisions based on science and health alone.

Mr Biden also signed an order to begin reimbursing states for the use of their National Guard troops to help in Covid-19 relief efforts.

He directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to designate a Covid-19 response point person for each state, to boost cooperation between the federal government and states.

Mr Biden also directed the Education Department and the Health and Human Services Department to immediately provide schools with clear guidance, and resources to safely reopen schools and childcare centres.

He has asked Congress to fund a US$1.9 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) Covid-19 relief package and economic rescue plan, setting up intense negotiations with lawmakers in the coming days and weeks.

"I know these bold, practical steps will not come cheap. But failing to do so will cost us much more dearly," said Mr Biden.

Mr Biden was set to sign more orders yesterday to increase food aid and protect job seekers, meant to provide some emergency relief to Americans while Congress considers his trillion-dollar package.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2021, with the headline 'US virus deaths likely to top half a million in Feb'. Subscribe