With more than 27,000 people still hospitalized with COVID-19 on any given day nationwide, and more than 500 of them dying and winter on the horizon President Joe Biden made a surprising assessment of the state of the pandemic on Sunday night.
“The pandemic is over,” Biden said in an interview on CBS' 60 Minutes. “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.”
A statement with that degree of public impact would normally be announced in a formal address, like one made from the Oval Office—or, at least, not as an off-the-cuff remark during a riff during a tour of an auto show. But even if Biden’s announcement that the pandemic was over hadn’t been so casual, many public health experts and pandemic authorities worry that Biden’s assertion is exactly the opposite of what the country needs to hear right now.
“The pandemic is far from over, and by suggesting it is, the president is inviting the public to just move on,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law Center, who expressed deep concern that Biden’s remarks will further persuade the American public that “sensible precautions” need no longer be taken.
“The president overreached and he should try to walk it back,” Gostin said. “He intended to convey that the risk from COVID isn't as great as it was a year ago, and that is a fair point. But that is a far cry from saying the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”
“There is simply too much uncertainty about what happens next,” David O’Connor, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Wisconsin, told The Daily Beast. “Will future variants outrun existing vaccines and therapeutics? What will be the impact of long COVID years, and potentially decades, from now? What other challenges can we not foresee three years into COVID-19 that will challenge us collectively in 2025, 2030, 2040 and beyond?”
The issue, health authorities told The Daily Beast, is less about Biden committing a political gaffe than about Biden potentially weakening the public’s resolve in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis.
“That comment to me, that’s going to be the killer. People are just not going to get vaccinated,” said Oved Amitay, CEO of The Solve ME/CFS Initiative, which focuses on post-infection diseases, including long-Covid.
Amitay doesn’t think Biden’s comment was purely made for political interests, but instead motivated by a larger change in public sentiment around Covid. As Biden noted in his 60 Minutes interview while walking through a car show filled with maskless patrons, life in America has gradually drifted back to some pre-pandemic normals. There are less masks, workplaces and schools reopened, and vaccines are widely available.
But those who are elderly, sick, immunocompromised or plagued by long-Covid say that rhetoric leaves them behind.
“For them, the pandemic is not over,” Amitay said.
Since March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than one million American lives. But with the rollout of tens of millions of vaccine doses and the subsequent return to a state of semi-normality, the Biden administration has indicated in recent months that it is hoping to move the country into a different posture in the fight against the virus. Health officials have begun shifting the responsibility for vaccine distribution onto private providers as the first variant-specific booster shots have hit pharmacies, and the emergency declaration that has been in force for nearly three years is set to expire next month.
But even despite those encouraging signs, the White House has publicly insisted that the upcoming winter could pose risks if basic protections aren’t taken.
“We have a virus out there that’s still circulating, still killing hundreds of Americans every day,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, told reporters earlier this month. “We all, as Americans, have to pull together to try to protect Americans and do what we can to get our health-care system through what might be a difficult fall and winter ahead.”
That job becomes much harder, O’Connor said, when the president echoes overly optimistic statements by previous administrations about the state of public health crises, stretching back to the Reagan administration.
“I’m reminded of then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler’s assertion that we would have an HIV vaccine ready for testing within about two years of the discovery of the virus,” O’Connor said. “Viruses are wily, and we shouldn’t overestimate our own capabilities in keeping them in check and using ingenuity to bring about ‘ends’ to pandemics.”
Diana Berrent, founder of the Covid advocacy group Survivor Corps, said she understands the assessment that the pandemic is in a different place, but disagrees with any assertion that it’s “over.”
“Biden’s announcement that the pandemic is over was premature... It reminded me of George Bush standing on the aircraft carrier beneath a sign announcing ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Berrent said, referring to the 2003 image of former President George Bush declaring major combat operations had ended in Iraq.
“Wishful thinking, catering to the constant inevitability of midterm elections, is not the basis for sound public health policy,” she added.
Biden’s comment notably comes just weeks before the midterm elections, with the Democratic Party’s control of Congress on the line. If the pandemic is over, as Biden suggests, a declaration of victory would allow Democrats' to take credit for having conquered the global virus that’s wrecked American public health for nearly three years.
But the political benefits of a “Victory Over COVID” declaration could undermine the public health campaign that Biden himself is trying to strengthen, said John P. Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medicine.
“If the pandemic were truly ‘over,’ why are health officials so emphasizing the present booster campaign?” Moore told The Daily Beast, adding that he assumed Biden’s comments were driven by the fact that many Americans are already behaving as if the pandemic were over—and that whether the pandemic is actually over is another matter.
“Whether the pandemic is ACTUALLY over will depend on how the winter months play out,” Moore said. “Will an infection surge start again in late-November and into the winter months, as in 2020 and 2021? Only time will tell.”
From a very technical epidemiological standpoint, the president may not be completely off-base, said Dr. David Freedman, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama.
“A widespread endemic disease with a stable number of infected individuals is not a pandemic,” Freedman said. “A pandemic is when a disease’s growth is exponential.”
But, Freedman noted, there is no concrete definition of when a pandemic “ends”—making Biden’s concrete declaration wobbly, at best.
“I am not sure any agency like WHO is going to say, ‘today is the day it is over,’” Freedman said.
On the Hill, some of Biden’s Democratic allies were simply left scratching their heads. Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL), the Democratic whip in the Senate, told CNN on Monday, “We are all hoping it's over -- nobody is going predict with certainty it is. I'm not.”
But, the senator pondered if maybe there was more to Biden’s declaration.
"He may know more than I do,” Durbin said.