WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) — President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday laid out his plan to fight the coronavirus pandemic during his first 100 days in office, saying his administration would vaccinate 100 million Americans, push to reopen schools and strengthen mask mandates.
Biden, who formally introduced his public health team on Tuesday, also announced he would nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin as the country's first Black defense secretary.
He also picked U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio to be the second Black woman to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department, and Tom Vilsack, the former agriculture secretary, to fill the same role again, according to news reports on Tuesday.
At a briefing in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden said he needed Congress to fully fund delivering vaccines to all corners of the United States. Getting children back to school will be a national priority in the first 100 days, Biden said.
"In 100 days, we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better," said Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20. "Whatever your politics or point of view, mask up for 100 days."
The coronavirus has killed more than 283,000 Americans and caused millions to lose their jobs.
Effective vaccines would help the Biden administration turn its focus to healing the ailing U.S. economy. There was more positive news on Tuesday in the form of U.S. Food and Drug Administration documents showing that the regulator did not raise any new issues about Pfizer's vaccine safety or efficacy.
Biden introduced California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Latino former congressman, as his nominee for secretary of health and human services. Becerra has a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Pushback on Pentagon pick
Biden picked Austin as defense secretary nominee, despite pushback from some Democrats in Congress unhappy with the idea of a former military man running the Pentagon.
"With a distinguished record of military service spanning four decades, Secretary-designate Austin is a deeply experienced and highly decorated commander who has served with distinction in several of the Pentagon's most crucial positions," the transition team said in a statement.
The confirmation of Austin, 67, who oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East under former President Barack Obama, would require Congress to approve a waiver because he has been out of the military for only four years, fewer than the seven years mandated by a law designed to ensure civilian oversight of the armed forces.
Outgoing President Donald Trump's first defense secretary, former Marine General Jim Mattis, also needed such a waiver.
Several Democratic senators, including Richard Blumenthal, Jack Reed and Jon Tester, expressed opposition to waiving the law, casting doubt on whether Austin's nomination will pass a closely divided Senate.
Fudge will be Biden's housing and urban development secretary, Politico and Bloomberg News reported, citing unnamed sources. If confirmed, Fudge would face a housing crisis stemming from the pandemic, which has seen millions of people miss rent and mortgage payments because of business shutdowns.
Biden asked Vilsack, who was agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, to return to the position, Axios reported, citing people familiar with the decision. Vilsack campaigned for Biden in Iowa, where he was governor for two terms, and served as an agricultural policy adviser.
The transition team did not immediately comment on the Fudge and Vilsack reports. Earlier on Tuesday, Fudge told reporters she would be honored but did not confirm she would be nominated.
'Help is on the way'
Trump has refused to concede his Nov. 3 election defeat, citing unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. On Tuesday, Texas filed a lawsuit petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the results in four other states in a long-shot bid to help Trump reverse the election's outcome.
The Trump campaign and allies have filed numerous lawsuits seeking to challenge vote counts in multiple states but have met with little success. State officials have said they have found no evidence of widespread fraud.
Biden's first few months will likely be dominated by the pandemic, which is straining hospitals amid a nationwide resurgence.
The rest of Biden's top public health advisers include Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who will run the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who will also be Biden's chief medical adviser on the virus; and Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, who will reprise that role under Biden.
Jeff Zients, an economic adviser known for his managerial skills, will serve as Biden's coronavirus "czar," overseeing the pandemic response, including the vaccine distribution.
"Help is on the way," Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said after Biden's new health care team members introduced themselves. "And it is long overdue."
(Reporting by Simon Lewis in Delaware and Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Andrea Shalal, John Whitesides, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Jason Lange; writing by Grant McCool and Joseph Ax; Editing by Ross Colvin, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
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