UPDATE 4-Biden lays out plans for COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and masks

(Updates with Biden speaking, signing orders)

WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden moved swiftly to coordinate a federal effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, his first full day in office, with steps to expand testing and vaccinations and increase mask-wearing.

His predecessor Donald Trump left much of the planning to individual states, resulting in a patchwork of policies across the country.

At a White House event, Biden said the rollout of the vaccine has been a "dismal failure so far."

"Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better," Biden said.

Executive orders signed by Biden on Thursday will establish a COVID-19 testing board to ramp up testing, address supply shortfalls, establish protocols for international travelers and direct resources to hard-hit minority communities.

They require mask-wearing in airports and on certain public transportation, including many trains, airplanes and intercity buses.

The administration will expand vaccine manufacturing and its power to purchase more vaccines by "fully leveraging contract authorities, including the Defense Production Act," according to the plan.

The Trump administration had invoked the law, which grants the president broad authority to “expedite and expand the supply of resources from the U.S. industrial base” for protective gear, but never enacted it for testing or vaccine production.

Biden will also direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse states and tribes fully for the costs associated with National Guard-related efforts to battle the virus.

The measure restores "full reimbursement" from the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund for costs related to reopening schools. FEMA funds are typically dispersed after hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.

Trump often sought to play down the severity of the virus, which has killed 405,000 people and infected more than 24 million in the United States, the highest numbers anywhere in the world. Millions of Americans have been thrown out of work due to lockdowns.

Biden has pledged to provide 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine during his first 100 days in office. His plan aims to increase vaccinations by opening up eligibility for more people such as teachers and grocery clerks.

As of Wednesday morning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had administered 16.5 vaccine doses of the 35.9 million doses distributed.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Nandita Bose, Susan Heavey Writing by John Whitesides and Sonya Hepinstall Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)

01/21/2021 20:49

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