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News Brief: Biden Signs Executive Orders, COVID-19 Surge Peaks


In his inaugural address, President Biden called for an end to, quote, "this uncivil war."


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation - one nation.


The new president was addressing a divided nation, and he acknowledged that many Americans may still disagree with what he does. That's democracy, he said in the address, but he asked those who did not support him to take a measure of his heart first. He then took immediate action to reverse some policies of President Trump's years. He's signed 15 different executive actions and plans 10 more today.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following this one. Hey, Franco.


KING: So 15 executive actions focused mainly on what?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, he covered a lot of ground and focusing on his priorities - the COVID-19 crisis, climate change, racial equity and the economy. You know, these things included rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization. He also ended President Trump's travel ban affecting Muslim-majority nations. He revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. You know, many of these immediate actions were aimed at rolling back what former President Trump had done.

KING: And then today he's going to sign 10 more. Will they span such a broad range of policies?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, what looks like we're going to see is these things in waves. And today, Biden's going to focus on fighting the coronavirus. Press Secretary Jen Psaki, she made it very clear yesterday that it's the top priority for President Biden. Here's what she said during her first briefing with reporters.


JEN PSAKI: The issue that he wakes up every day focused on is getting the pandemic under control. The issue he goes to bed every night focused on is getting the pandemic under control.

ORDOÑEZ: And last night, White House officials working on the COVID-19 response say that Biden plans to sign 10 orders and directives today to show he's taking charge. He wants to ensure that 100 million vaccines happen in his first 100 days in office. A key part of that is directing agencies to use the Defense Production Act to boost shortfalls of vaccines but also on testing and supplies. That includes things like N95 masks, gowns and gloves. Biden will also say that there needs to be more guidance for schools to reopen and more safety guidance for workplaces. And he'll direct FEMA to reimburse states for vaccines and testing supplies. And just another - he will require masks on planes and buses and require travelers to show a negative COVID-19 test before flying to the United States.

KING: OK. So he is dead focused on the pandemic, but there is a potential distraction for Joe Biden here. The House impeached President Trump during his last days in office. He will be tried in the Senate, which means the Senate for a time will be focused on former President Trump. How is Biden reacting to that, given how much he would like to get done?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, you know, Jen Psaki was asked about whether the impeachment hurts his message on unity. She didn't answer directly. On the one hand, she noted Biden's strong condemnation of the president's role in inciting the violence at the Capitol. But she also stressed what's most important to Biden is uniting the country. She said Biden's going to just allow Congress to decide the way forward on an impeachment trial. And she expressed confidence that senators could multitask while the president is focused on the pandemic and the economic crisis. But, look, even Biden acknowledges the challenges are immense. He's asking Congress for nearly $2 trillion for his COVID-19 relief plan. And even though Democrats control both chambers, he's going to need a lot of Republican support to get those things through.

KING: So how do you think he'll square his talk about unity with getting his agenda passed?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's not going to be easy. The country and Congress are deeply divided on all these difficult issues. And then there's the immigration proposal he sent to the Hill, something that a lot of conservatives are expected to reject because it includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, something they see as amnesty. So he's going to have a lot of opportunity to test his skills for building the kind of unity we heard him talk about yesterday.

KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.


KING: All right. If the pandemic is the top priority for Biden, the second priority is overhauling the U.S. immigration system.

INSKEEP: The new president seeks to undo Trump's signature immigration policies. He also proposes a path to citizenship for more than 10 million immigrants who are in this country illegally. Here's Press Secretary Jen Psaki in her first news conference last night.


PSAKI: President Biden sent an immigration bill to Congress. The U.S. Citizenship Act modernizes our immigration system. It provides hardworking people who've enriched our communities and lived here for decades an opportunity to earn citizenship.

KING: NPR's John Burnett covers immigration and is with us from Austin. Good morning, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So fewer than 24 hours in, there are many new White House initiatives on immigration. Tell us about them.

BURNETT: It's mammoth, Noel. It amounts to a complete repudiation of Donald Trump's crackdown on immigration. As Franco just mentioned, Biden signed executive actions to throw out the so-called Muslim travel ban to temporarily halt construction of the border wall for the next hundred days to rein in ICE agents and stop certain deportations and to strengthen DACA. Remember, that's the Obama-era program that shields the DREAMers from deportation. Those are unauthorized immigrants who were brought here as children and many have now become essential workers. Trump tried to cancel DACA, but the Supreme Court kept the program alive.

KING: So there are the executive actions and then there is the bill. How ambitious is the bill?

BURNETT: Well, in the most dramatic step, Biden wants to create a roadmap to citizenship for more than 10 million unauthorized immigrants. This is the big immigration reform that advocates have been clamoring for for decades. Biden's bill says an undocumented immigrant could become an American in eight years if they pass background checks, pay their taxes and complete a citizenship test. Also, Biden wants to allow more refugees into the U.S. who are fleeing war and natural disasters.

KING: Noting your use of the word decades, I wonder what kind of chance does this bill have of passing in Congress?

BURNETT: (Laughter) It's going to be a tough sell among immigration hawks in this super-divided Congress. They're alarmed that Biden wants to dismantle all those tough border controls that Trump imposed. And there's not much here about border security, Noel. Biden wants his Homeland Security Department to expand surveillance technology as an alternative to that steel and concrete barrier. Here's Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. It favors less immigration to the U.S.

MARK KRIKORIAN: It's a radical departure from all previous amnesty plans because it has no enforcement in it, you know? So I actually think realistically, there's no way the Senate could ever pass this.

KING: OK, fair enough. But let's say they do. How would this affect the lives of immigrants?

BURNETT: Well, as it happens, I watched the inauguration ceremony yesterday with a Guatemalan asylum-seeker named Hilda Ramirez. She's taken refuge in a Presbyterian church in North Charleston for all the Trump years. And she's afraid if she leaves the property, ICE agents will arrest and deport her. Her 14-year-old son, Ivan, has lived a third of his life there. Biden's bill would be potentially life-changing for them. Hilda could get a green card and a work permit, and Ivan could live like a normal teenager.

HILDA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: She said she's full of hope. She's been praying that God send them a good U.S. president who will treat immigrants justly.

KING: NPR's John Burnett in Austin. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Noel.


KING: All right. If you take a look at the numbers, there are some positive indicators on the coronavirus.

INSKEEP: Yeah. It doesn't feel very positive right now, but it turns out that in 35 states, case numbers are falling week over week. In 18 states, the number of deaths is dropping. And to researchers, these numbers indicate the virus has peaked in the United States.

KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: I love nothing more than a positive indicator. This looks like good news.

STEIN: That's right. But, you know, don't get me wrong, things are still really bad right now, as Steve mentioned. Lots of people are still getting infected, sick and dying. But if you look carefully at the numbers, the daily infections look like they hit a high about a week or so ago, depending on how you crunch the data. Since then, it looks like the number of people catching the virus every day has finally started falling. Here's one of the researchers I've been hearing this from, Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington.

ALI MOKDAD: Yes, we have peaked in terms of cases and then we're coming down slowly. This is very good news, very good news.

STEIN: Because it could mean the U.S. has finally started to turn the corner on this nightmare. In fact, it appears the number of people flooding into hospitals has peaked nationally, too, which means the number of daily deaths could start falling next.

KING: I'm curious about what peaked means. Does that mean we now can stop worrying so much, we're out of the woods?

STEIN: Well, no, doesn't mean that. I mean, first of all, there are still skeptics about whether the pandemic's really peaked. The CDC, for example, isn't quite ready to officially declare the pandemic has peaked. And even those who think the pandemic has peaked, there are lots of caveats. You know, first of all, there are still hot spots around the country. And there are three big ifs about what happens next. The virus could surge again if the sluggish vaccination campaign doesn't really finally start to ramp up and if people start to let down their guard. I talked about this with Caitlin Rivers. She's an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.

CAITLIN RIVERS: Often what we see is a sort of cyclical pattern where things worsen and so people stay home more. They are more vigilant about wearing masks. They skip the restaurants or the get-togethers. But as things improve, people relax a little bit and incorporate some of those risky behaviors again, and things can again accelerate.

KING: OK, you said there are three ifs. We got to get vaccines up. We need people to keep their guard up. And then there's another big if. What's that?

STEIN: Yeah, the third one is probably the most terrifying, really. Those new variants - there's the U.K. one that's already here. There's the one from South Africa, one in Brazil, others emerging in the U.S. If any of them take off before enough people get vaccinated or, you know, God forbid, outsmart the vaccines, you know, then all bets are off. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: I think this is a really substantial threat. The experience from the U.K. and Ireland and other countries that have seen this is it can very quickly reverse all of the gains and make things dramatically worse. So I'm very, very worried about this variant.

STEIN: But, you know, Noel, if none of those awful ifs come true, things could continue to get better, and life could really slowly start to return to something more like normal by the summer.

KING: Gosh. Still so much we don't know. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, as always, Rob.

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

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.