By Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden attempted to jump-start the U.S. government's response to the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, signing a string of executive orders intended to lead a country reeling from its worst public health crisis in more than a century.
Biden takes office a day after the United States marked a total of 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began spreading widely last March. Vaccination programs have lagged far behind the target of 20 million Americans inoculated by the end of 2020.
"We're entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus and must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation," Biden, a 78-year-old Democrat, said in his inauguration speech.
The United States has reported nearly 200,000 new COVID-19 infections and 3,000 deaths per day on a seven-day rolling average, according to Reuters data. More than 123,000 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
Although the U.S. government has sent roughly 36 million doses of two approved vaccines to states so far, only 16.5 million have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most of those shots have gone to healthcare workers and nursing home residents, with Americans deemed "non-essential workers" by the government told they would likely wait months for their turn.
The actions Biden signed on Wednesday included a mask mandate on federal property and for federal employees, an order to establish a new White House office coordinating the response to the virus and halting the process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization, aides said.
The Biden administration also intends to join the COVAX alliance, an initiative led by the World Health Organization and two other groups that seeks to secure greater access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the re-engagement of the United States with WHO, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, adding it was "absolutely critical" for a better coordinated global response against COVID-19.
"With vaccines being a critical tool in the battle against COVID-19, the United States joining and supporting the COVAX facility will give momentum to efforts to ensure equitable access to vaccines for all countries," Dujarric said.
FACE MASK DEBATE
Biden's first moves are intended to mark a sharp change from the Trump administration's pandemic response, which critics called ineffectual and uncoordinated. After taking the oath of office at a scaled-back inauguration ceremony, Biden conducted a silent prayer for the Americans who have perished in the pandemic.
Biden was also poised to nominate an acting U.S. surgeon general as soon as Wednesday, MSNBC reported, following the resignation of Trump appointee Jerome Adams.
Biden's executive actions, particularly the mask mandate, are also intended to set an example for state and local officials as they try to rein in the virus. Lockdown orders and business closures imposed by political leaders have thrown millions of Americans out of work and hobbled the U.S. economy.
The federal mask mandate plan drew praise from the nation's top business lobby on Wednesday, with U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark calling it "a smart and practical approach."
Scientists and public health experts have said face masks can help prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus, but face coverings have become a flashpoint in American life reflecting the nation's larger political divide.
Trump, who contracted COVID-19 last autumn, rejected calls for a national mask mandate and held largely maskless campaign rallies. Biden's campaign initially stuck to virtual events before expanding to other masked and socially distant gatherings.
There were few face masks as Trump departed Washington on Wednesday morning. Speaking at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Trump painted his administration as a victim of the virus.
"We got hit. Nobody blames us for that. The whole world got it," he said of the pandemic's toll on the economy. He later touted the development of a vaccine as a "miracle" before paying his respects to people and families impacted by the virus.
Full coverage for Eikon readers of the U.S. presidential transition https://emea1.apps.cp.thomsonreuters.com/cms/?navid=20856
For multimedia coverage please open in a separate browser https://www.reuters.com/world/us
For a live blog on the inauguration please open in a separate browser https://reut.rs/35WCLQn
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Patricia Zengerle, David Shepardson, David Brunnstrom and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Gabriella Borter in Florida and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Lincoln Feast.)