President Biden unveiled his administration’s COVID-19 strategy on Thursday, warning that the US death toll from the pandemic will likely surpass 500,000 in February.
Biden signed a series of executive orders aimed at increasing testing capacity, speeding up vaccination distribution and reopening schools on Thursday. On Friday, the president signed two more orders aimed at providing increasing food stamp benefits and collective bargaining powers for workers.
Thursday’s order invoking the Defense Production Act is to increase the supply of all the materials needed to get the vaccines into arms and ramp up testing. The order covers N95 masks and other protective gear, testing machines, rapid test kits and syringes capable of maximizing the amount of Covid vaccine that can be extracted from vials.
A Pandemic Testing Board will use the Defense Production Act and other means to produce and distribute more tests, including for schools. Workplaces with the resources, such as movie sets, have relied on frequent and rapid testing to operate safely during the pandemic, but access to tests for teachers and students has been limited by budgets.
The first order increases federal assistance for the millions of Americans facing food insecurity. It directs the Department of Agriculture to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by 15 percent to 20 percent through this September. It also calls for further financial assistance to families with children who relied on school-provided meals. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, applicants for the SNAP program have increased 17 percent since the start of the pandemic.
The second order restores collective bargaining power and worker protections for federal workers and calls for a $15 minimum wage for federal employees and contractors. The order also expands protections for employees who quit their jobs due to feeling unsafe in their work environments.
“No one should have to choose between their livelihoods and their own health in the middle of a pandemic,” President Biden explained.
These executive orders come as an addition to the $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill that Biden hopes Congress, with both chambers controlled by Democrats, will pass in the near future.
Biden also mandated increased restrictions on international travelers and imposed a mask mandate on planes and other forms of public transit.