On his first full day in office, President Joe Biden unveiled a 198-page national plan to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, calling it a wartime undertaking against COVID-19. Adding to the urgency, the U.S. recorded another near world record-high death toll Thursday with over 4,100 deaths.
Biden signed 10 executive orders to create a new national COVID-19 testing board, to help schools reopen, to mandate international travelers to quarantine upon arrival, and to mandate masks on many forms of interstate transportation.
President Joe Biden: “Our plan starts with mounting an aggressive, safe and effective vaccination program to meet our goal of administering 100 million shots in our first hundred days in office. We’re on day one. This will be one of the greatest operational challenges our nation has ever undertaken.”
On Thursday, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, spoke to reporters at the White House and was asked about the difference between working under Presidents Trump and Biden.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: “The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know — what the evidence, what the science is — and know that’s it, let the science speak, it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”
Here in New York, vaccination clinics have begun canceling appointments and turning away seniors as supplies of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines dwindle. It’s a scene that’s been repeated across the U.S. This is New York City Councilmember Mark Levine.
Councilmember Mark Levine: “Because of the unreliability of supply, the city had to cancel tens of thousands of appointments this week. This is a desperate situation. At the pace at which we are receiving vaccine, it would take us well into 2022 to achieve herd immunity in New York City. That’s unacceptable.”
On Thursday, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to increase COVID-19 testing and the production of vaccine supplies, including glass vials and syringes. Many public health experts are calling on Biden to use his executive powers to demand that vaccine makers share their patented technologies with other manufacturers in order to end production bottlenecks and speed vaccines to people across the U.S. and around the world.
In international news, Chinese officials are rushing construction of a massive quarantine facility outside Beijing that can temporarily house more than 4,000 people in isolation. Cities in northern China that are home to millions of people entered lockdown earlier this month as authorities try to stamp out several small coronavirus outbreaks. The lockdowns come ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, an annual holiday that normally sees hundreds of millions of people travel within China to visit family.
Portugal has the world’s highest seven-day average rate of new COVID-19 cases and the second highest per capita death rate. The surge is wreaking havoc with Portugal’s presidential election on Sunday.
In India, a massive fire at the Serum Institute of India killed five people Thursday. The institute is the world’s largest producer of vaccines, though officials said the blaze did not affect production of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
Meanwhile, Hungary has become the first European Union member nation to give emergency use authorization to Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.
President Biden has proposed a five-year extension with Russia to the only remaining nuclear treaty between the two countries, before it expires on February 5. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each. This is White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki: “The New START treaty is in the national security interests of the United States. And this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial, as it is at this time.”
This comes as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons goes into effect today. The U.N.-backed agreement was ratified by 51 countries, but those do not include any of the world’s nine nuclear powers — Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States.
Lawmakers on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a waiver allowing retired Army General Lloyd Austin to become Pentagon chief. Austin left the military four years ago and now serves on the board of weapons maker Raytheon; normally a minimum of seven years is required before taking the civilian job — unless a waiver is granted from both houses of Congress. Many of the House Democrats who voted for the waiver opposed a waiver for President Trump’s first Pentagon chief pick, retired Marine General Jim Mattis. The Senate could vote on Austin’s confirmation as soon as today. If confirmed, he would become the first Black defense secretary.
Meanwhile Biden will keep FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was appointed by Trump in 2017, in his position.
In other news from Biden’s administration, the president has appointed Jessica Rosenworcel as acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Digital rights activists praised the move, pointing to Rosenworcel’s record at the commission, which includes supporting net neutrality, treating the internet as a public utility and increasing access for underserved populations.
In a setback for Palestinian rights, secretary of state nominee Tony Blinken said during his confirmation hearing this week that the Biden administration will not reverse Trump’s contested move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, also recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinian journalist Lama Khater tweeted, “Everything is subject to change in the agendas of successive U.S. administrations, except for absolute loyalty to Israel.”
Senate Democrats have rejected a proposal by Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to preserve the 60-vote legislative filibuster as part of a power-sharing agreement. Democrats are seeking to prevent a minority of senators from derailing ambitious legislation like President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package. McConnell has threatened to block an organizing resolution laying out rules and committee assignments for the new Senate session, unless Democrats agree to maintain the filibuster.
Meanwhile, Senator McConnell called on Democrats Thursday to delay former President Trump’s impeachment trial until February in order to give Trump’s legal team more time to prepare. His call came as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would send the article of impeachment to the Senate soon.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “The fact is, the president of the United States committed an act of incitement of insurrection. I don’t think it’s very unifying to say, 'Oh, let's just forget it and move on.’”
Several Senate Democrats have filed an ethics complaint against Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley over their role in inciting the deadly January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The complaint seeks an investigation into whether Cruz, Hawley or any of the senators’ staffers were in contact with organizers of the riot — or helped to coordinate their actions.
Federal agents in Michigan have arrested former U.S. marine Michael Joseph Foy for assaulting a federal officer and other charges related to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Video appears to show Foy using a hockey stick to repeatedly bash a prone police officer who was dragged into a violent mob trying to push its way inside the Capitol. NPR reports nearly one in five people charged over the January 6 attack are U.S. military veterans.
A coalition of 135 civil rights organizations is calling on Congress not to pass new anti-terrorism laws in the wake of the January 6 attacks, warning they could be used to expand racial profiling or to surveil communities of color and political opponents in the name of national security.
Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said, “The government’s inadequate response to rising white nationalism is a disgraceful policy failure. The problem is hardly new, and prosecutors have long had a multitude of criminal statutes at their disposal to confront white supremacist violence.” Click here to see our interview with the ACLU.
In immigration news, the Biden administration has suspended the controversial Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program. The 2019 policy forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in dangerous conditions in crowded and squalid refugee camps across northern Mexico while their cases make their way through U.S. courts. This is asylum seeker Marlen, speaking to the advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, People Without Borders, about facing homelessness with her family after being sent to Mexico.
Marlen: “We vividly remember when we arrived to the immigration office in Mexico. They didn’t give us a place to sleep or anything to eat. Our children slept on the floor that night.”
President Biden is set to sign an executive order today speeding delivery of food aid and millions of stimulus checks to families struggling to afford rent, utilities and groceries. On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said lawmakers would move immediately on a new COVID-19 relief bill, with House passage likely in early February.
In labor news, the grocery delivery app Instacart is laying off nearly 2,000 workers, including a group of employees from Illinois who created the first and only union of Instacart workers and inspired others across the country to organize. The 10 Illinois employees were in the process of negotiating their first union contract. Instacart is reportedly offering fired workers severance pay of just $250.
In New York, Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez skipped President Biden’s inauguration celebrations Wednesday evening to join striking workers at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx. Workers have been on strike since Sunday, demanding better wages. This is Ocasio-Cortez speaking at the picket line outside Hunts Point Market.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “When you’re standing on this line, you’re not just asking for a dollar. You are asking for transformational change, for your lives and for the lives of every food worker across this country, for kids of food workers across this country, because there’s a lot of things upside down right now in our economy.”
Union members at The New Yorker magazine went on a 24-hour strike Thursday after denouncing “management’s egregious wage proposal” in their ongoing contract talks. According to the union, the wage proposal includes the right to decrease union members’ salaries by up to 20% at any time. In a statement, unionized employees wrote, “We are committed to The New Yorker, which is why many of us have worked here years — even decades — despite low and stagnant wages. However much we may love our jobs, that love is not enough to live on.”