New US President Joe Biden warned yesterday that the Covid-19 death toll in the United States, the world's hardest-hit country from the pandemic, is expected to top 600,000.
"The virus is surging. We're 400,000 dead, expected to reach well over 600,000," he told a press conference, giving his highest estimate yet for the US outbreak's eventual death toll.
The comment came after Biden ordered help for hungry US citizens in the growing coronavirus crisis Friday. There are fears in Washington, however, that Donald Trump's looming impeachment trial could complicate getting Congress to cooperate on his fast-paced agenda.
Although Biden's latest orders boosting food aid and speeding up stimulus payments were modest in scale, they reinforced the message that Washington needs to step in decisively against the pandemic and the related economic fallout. Just a few days after Biden took power, the White House is sounding the alarm.
"We are at a precarious moment for the virus and the economy. Without decisive action, we risk falling into a very serious economic hole," said Brian Deese, director of the White House's National Economic Council. "We can't wait to provide the resources."
Biden is having to push Congress for funding while simultaneously getting his government confirmed – Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin won Senate approval Friday – and bracing for turmoil from the impeachment trial.
Deese said Republicans and Democrats in Congress must find ways to manage the clashing issues.
"We are facing right now a period of multiple crises and what we need right now is to be able to act on multiple fronts," he said.
Barrage of executive order
The new administration has brought a calmer style after the stormy Trump era, but Biden's cascade of executive orders since the moment he entered the White House on Wednesday is making plenty of noise of its own.
That day saw the 78-year-old Democrat sign 17 actions, he signed 10 on Thursday, and was expected to reach for the box of ceremonial pens to put his signature on two more on Friday.
The slew of orders has covered top campaign agenda items, including the political hot potato of immigration reform.
Biden extended protections from deportation for so-called "Dreamers" – children of illegal immigrants who have grown up in the country.
But the offensive is overwhelmingly targeted on a Covid-19 pandemic that the new president described Thursday as a wartime-level catastrophe, with the current toll of more than 410,000 dead likely to hit half a million next month.
As well as ordering masks to be worn on trains, planes and in airports, Biden said Thursday that people coming to the United States will be required to quarantine on arrival.
He is simultaneously trying to re-energise and expand a faltering vaccination programme. Some 16.5 million vaccines have been administered to Americans and Biden is calling for 100 million shots in 100 days.
'Walk and chew gum'
With unemployment jumping by another 1.3 million applications last week, Biden argues that recovery from the initially catastrophic plunge in the US economy after the pandemic first hit last year is faltering.
His flagship policy is a US$1.9-trillion economic rescue package that he outlined last week.
But Congress, having already passed two huge economic relief bills, is reluctant. The president's Democratic Party has only a small majority in the House and a razor-thin advantage in the Senate.
Biden is also relying on Congress to hurry up and approve his Cabinet nominations.
A first key security figure was confirmed on Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. The Senate's confirmation of Austin on Friday makes him the first African American to lead the Pentagon. Tony Blinken for secretary of state and Janet Yellen for treasury secretary appeared to be headed for confirmation either Friday or next week.
That already clogged schedule in the legislature will now have to cope with the impeachment drama.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden, who was a senator for decades, remains confident.
"The Senate, members of both parties, can walk and chew gum at the same time and can move forward with the business of the American people," she said.