The Weekly Pulse: Science and Health Take Center Stage Under Biden Administration; Abortion Under Attack

For The Weekly Pulse (a revisit of an old Ms. column!), we’ve scoured the most trusted journalistic sources—and, of course, our Twitter feeds—to bring you this week’s most important news stories related to health and wellness.

In this week’s edition, we follow the flurry of executive orders aimed at addressing the pandemic and global health following the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden; provide updates on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution; and, in the Repro Rundown, look at the continued attacks on abortion rights.

Biden Administration Establishes Federal Pandemic Response

+ “We can overcome this deadly virus.” President Biden said during his inaugural address on Wednesday. He quickly got to work on this goal on his first full day in office, signing a series of executive orders aimed at stopping the pandemic. Given the Trump administration’s “woefully inadequate” pandemic response—as now-Vice President Kamala Harris put it last April—the new administration will need to build the federal government’s pandemic response infrastructure from the ground up.

Some of the things President Biden’s first batch of executive orders will do include: 

  • Coordinate an effective COVID-19 response with state, local, tribal and territorial authorities.
  • Establish a federal COVID-19 Testing Board to ramp up testing capabilities nationwide, including expanding the public health workforce, increasing laboratory testing capacity and manufacturing more tests.
  • Create a COVID-19 Health Equity Taskforce to research and address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color, Indigenous populations and low-income communities.
  • Mandate masks on federal property, as well as during travel on planes, ships, trains, and other forms of public transportation.
  • Enforce workplace safety standards and providing resources to protect workers from contracting COVID-19.
  • Support the safe reopening of schools.
  • Provide U.S. leadership on global health and security.

+ The Biden administration will invoke the Defense Production Act in order to increase manufacturing capacity for the COVID-19 vaccines and PPE. Vaccine distribution remains chaotic, and even with the new administration’s goal to administer 100 million shots in 100 days, some experts say we need to be doing even more to get a handle on the pandemic. According to the C.D.C., only 17 million doses have been administered out of nearly 38 million doses that have been distributed.

+ As more news continues to pop up about different strains of the coronavirus popping up in countries and fueling a surge in cases in California, you may be wondering about what this means for the efficacy of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. While there is some concern among experts about the vaccines being less effective against the new strains, it is generally accepted that the vaccines will offer some degree of protection against different strains of SARS-CoV-2.

Vaccines prompt your body to create antibodies that recognize a specific virus. Therefore, scientists expect antibodies created by the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine will still be able to recognize new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and offer protection against COVID-19.

Nevertheless, more contagious strains of the virus present challenges in slowing the spread of the disease. While one of the more contagious strains—known as B.1.1.7—does not yet seem to cause a worse course of disease or increased risk of death on its own, the CDC warned in a recent report that the health care system will need to be prepared for yet another surge in cases. 

In spite of pandemic fatigue, now is not the time to let up on safety measures that prevent transmission of the virus. “The increased transmissibility of the B.1.1.7 variant warrants universal and increased compliance with mitigation strategies, including distancing and masking. Higher vaccination coverage might need to be achieved to protect the public,” the CDC report said.

+ In his inaugural address, President Biden asked Americans to join him in a silent prayer dedicated to the more than 400,000 lives lost in the pandemic so far. 

“And, in my first act as President, I would like to ask you to join me in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those we lost this past year to the pandemic.

To those 400,000 fellow Americans – mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

We will honor them by becoming the people and nation we know we can and should be.

Let us say a silent prayer for those who lost their lives, for those they left behind, and for our country.”

Many social media users commented on how refreshing hearing President Biden’s solemn tone was, especially in contrast to the previous president’s infamous remarks (like saying the U.S. death toll “is what it is”). The pandemic has changed the way we grieve and President Biden’s words, as well as the light display at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool for those who’ve lost their lives to COVID-19, signify a step towards collective healing from this pandemic.

Biden Administration Moves Swiftly to Prioritize Science and Health

+ President Biden is also moving to reengage with the World Health Organization (WHO) and reverse the Trump administration’s decision to cut ties with the organization in July.

According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Biden signed an executive order to fulfill a campaign promise and halt the United States’ departure from the organization, as it takes a year’s notice to formally withdraw. The Biden administration also announced that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci will soon be the head of the U.S. delegation to the WHO’s executive board. 

“Once the United States resumes its engagement with the WHO, the Biden-Harris Administration will work with the WHO and our partners to strengthen and reform the organization, support the COVID-19 health and humanitarian response, and advance global health and health security,” Biden’s transition team said in a statement.

+ To fulfill another campaign promise, President Biden signed an executive order to have the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate agreement after being the only country out of almost 200 signatories to have withdrawn. The U.S. officially withdrew late last year after Trump started the process in 2017. Climate experts agree, one of the lasting legacies of the Trump administration will be the time lost in addressing the climate crisis. 

“The window for meaningful action is now very narrow – we have no time to waste,” said Dr. M. Sanjayan, chief executive of Conservation International. “President Biden’s action today is certainly a step in the right direction.” President Biden also issued and executive order aimed at protecting our environment and public health by reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, with specific attention given to environmental justice initiatives.

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+ To further highlight his dedication to addressing the climate crisis, President Biden rescinded the construction permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a 1,200-mile, $8 billion project that would transport crude from western Canada through Montana and to Gulf Coast refineries. The pipeline had many tribal members worried about the ways it could threaten their community—specifically access to clean drinking water. The executive order represents the first step towards justice for indigenous populations.

“We look at these pipelines as an act of genocide against Native people. Pipelines cross our reservations, causing destruction to our environment and our people. We can’t live without water, and you cannot replace a life,” said Angeline Cheek, Fort Peck tribal member and Indigenous Justice Organizer for the ACLU of Montana. 

+ President Biden has made it known he plans to roll back several of the Trump administration’s restrictive attacks on reproductive health, rights and care. 

+ Dr. Anthony Fauci told the WHO executive board that Biden soon plans to revoke the Mexico City Policy “as part of his broader commitment to protect women’s health and advance gender equality at home and around the world.” The Mexico City Policy—also known as the “global gag rule”—originated within the Reagan administration, but was reinstituted and revamped by the Trump administration.  However, abortion rights advocates say revoking the measure is not enough and are calling on Congress to pass the Global HER Act to permanently prohibit the rule. 

+ In 2019, the Trump administration blocked clinics within the Title X program from referring patients to abortion providers or performing abortions with other funds. This caused the number of clinics and patients within the program to drop and continues to impact comprehensive reproductive health care. About a quarter of Title X sub-recipients left the network—including Planned Parenthood, who served 40 percent of all Title X patients. Biden is expected to dial back the Trump administration’s restrictive rule and restore federal funding to Planned Parenthood. 

+ Under the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act, most private insurance plans are required to cover birth control without copayments. However, the Trump administration rolled back the reach of the mandate by allowing employers to religiously or morally object from providing coverage.  Biden plans to restore the ACA’s policy by only exempting houses of worship from providing coverage and creating accommodations for objecting employers to offer alternative means for employees to access contraception. 

+ During this time, President Biden plans to put an end to the decades-old Hyde Amendment and its attacks on low income individuals looking to access save abortion care. 

“We have a ton of work to do to undo the harm over the last four years, but knowing we have champions there who understand what needs to happen in the first 100 days is tremendously exciting,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood.

Repro Rundown: Abortion Under Attack

+ In Honduras, legislators are moving a constitutional reform through Congress that would make it nearly impossible for the country to legalize abortion now or in the future. 

The measure comes in response to the feminist “green wave” movement that has gained traction across Latin American countries—most notably with Argentina’s legalization of abortion. Proponents call the measure a “shield against abortion.”

Argentina’s recent legalization of early abortion is a direct result of organized activism and mass demonstrations demanding legal abortion. (Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito or National Campaign for the Right of Legal, Safe and Free Abortion / @CampAbortoLegal / Twitter)

“It’s a shield to stop the green wave,” said Cristina Alvarado, representative of the Women’s Movement for Peace. “In Honduras there is an absolute violation of the reproductive rights of women and girls.”

+ Idaho legislators are once again looking to defund abortion care by introducing a new bill that denies state funding to abortion providers or social workers who refer clients to abortion services.

The bill was introduced this Wednesday by Republican Rep. Bruce Skaug and aims to be widely implemented to public school districts as well as public health districts, counties and cities. The legislation would not place an outright ban on abortion, but would prohibit the state from working with, recommending or funding abortion providers. 

+ In Kansas, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution is heading to the Senate for debate after being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

The amendment aims to say the Kansas Constitution grants no right to abortion and allows legislators to regulate abortion care within the state. 

+ This week, a Mississippi lawmaker filed to make abortion within the state a felony crime. If convicted, the person performing the abortion would be jailed for up to 10 years and be fined up to $25,000.

District 25 Rep. Dan Eubanks co-sponsored HB 338 that states: 

“Any person willfully and knowingly causing … any woman pregnant with child to abort or miscarry, or attempts to procure or produce an abortion or miscarriage shall be guilty of a felony.”

+ In Richmond, a bill with the potential to expand insurance coverage for abortion services is making its way to the Senate floor. 

“Abortion is the only legal medical procedure that is prohibited by Virginia law from even being offered by private companies who sell plans under an exchange,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan explains. “And this bill would just remove that prohibition. It doesn’t require anyone to offer one. But it does remove that prohibition.”

About and

Corinne Ahrens is a recent graduate of The American University where she studied Political Science with a specialization in Gender, Race, & Politics as well as Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Corinne has been writing for Ms. since October 2019 and is a former Ms. editorial intern. She currently works at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy in their Philadelphia office.
Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.