Top Biden administration officials stressed that COVID-19 continues to be a threat following the president’s controversial comments about the pandemic that came during a “60 Minutes” interview at the Detroit Auto Show televised Sunday.
“The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it, but the pandemic is over,” Biden said. “If you notice, no one is wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. So I think it’s changing and I think this is a perfect example of it.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters a day later at a New York event promoting the new, updated COVID-19 booster shots that Biden was echoing Americans’ attitude toward a virus that remains deadly.
“I think the president was reflecting what so many Americans are feeling and thinking,” Becerra said, “that COVID has disrupted our lives for so long, but we’re also finding that with these effective vaccines, with masking, with the efforts to protect our children, seniors, we are learning how to cope with this virus.”
“But make no mistake. People are still dying,” the secretary said, according to The New York Times.
As of Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 360 lives lost daily from COVID-19, along with nearly 55,000 new cases and 3,900 hospitalizations for the virus each day in the United States.
Utah just surpassed 5,000 deaths from COVID-19, and last Thursday saw more than a 6% increase in the seven-day average case count to just over 359, according to the most recent data reported by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, called the toll that COVID-19 continues to take “unacceptably high” during a discussion Monday with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Fauci, who recently announced he will leave government service at the end of the year, said while the pandemic may be “heading in the right direction” after nearly three years, more needs to be done to combat the virus as new variants are “likely” to emerge this winter.
“We are not where we need to be if we are going to quote ‘live with the virus’ because we know we are not going to eradicate it,” he said. “The next question we ask, ‘Are we going to be able to eliminate it from our country or from most of the world?’ And the answer is, ‘Unlikely,’ because it is highly transmissible and the immunity that’s induced by vaccine or infection is also transient.”
Too few Americans have been vaccinated and boosted against the virus, Fauci said, increasing their risk of severe illness or death. Less than 68% of the country has received their initial series of COVID-19 shots, and fewer than half of them have also gotten even a single booster dose of vaccine, according to the CDC.
Utah’s vaccination rates for COVID-19 lag behind, with slightly more than 63% of Utahns having completed the initial series of shots. Just over 30% of Utahns have gotten a booster dose. COVID-19 vaccines are available to anyone 6 months and older, and booster doses to those 5 and older.
Despite the president’s declaration the pandemic is over, his administration’s COVID-19 public health emergency determination that allows the government to waive or modify requirements for health-related programs remains in effect, and efforts to secure $22 million from Congress for vaccines and other virus-fighting tools continue.
Just two weeks ago, Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House COVID-19 Response Team, told reporters during an update on the virus, “The pandemic isn’t over. And we will remain vigilant, and of course, we continue to look for and prepare for unforeseen twists and turns.”
The mixed messaging has some health experts concerned about the impact of Biden’s comments.
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said the president may have spoken too soon.
“Myself and a lot of other folks in public health think it’s premature to say it’s over,” Kim said. “To say that maybe we’re turning the corner might have been a much better thing to say. Or maybe that we’re entering a new phase of the pandemic.”
The professor said while there’s “no magic number” of cases or deaths that would definitively spell the end of the pandemic, the public’s perception of the virus has changed. Maybe, Kim said, that’s what the president was really trying to convey.
“We’re at a lull. It’s OK to feel a little optimistic,” he said, adding that the nation also needs to be ready if COVID-19 surges again as people start spending more time indoors, by staying up-to-date on vaccinations and being prepared to wear masks and take other steps to limit the spread of the virus.
“When you say it’s over, then people are less likely to listen to that message. When you say it’s over, there’s a finality to it, like, ‘OK, I’m going to chuck all my masks and we’re never going to go online in school again and we’re never going to cancel a party or get-together again because of COVID.’ That’s not the case,” Kim said.
A Brigham Young University political science professor also worries about the muting effect of what the president said.
“His words may make it harder to communicate what Americans need to be doing to keep themselves as healthy as possible in the months ahead,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, especially given the nation’s pandemic fatigue.
“Most Americans are tired of hearing about the pandemic and are ready to move on,” Karpowitz said. “President Biden’s statement correctly reflects the feelings of many Americans, but that does not mean we are completely back to normal yet, as much as we would all like to be. COVID remains a fast-moving and challenging virus.”
Some Republicans are already using Biden’s words to challenge the administration’s ongoing pandemic policies such as military vaccination requirements, as well as the request for additional COVID-19 funding, according to NPR.
The president’s student loan forgiveness plan, already unpopular with Republicans, may also be in jeopardy because it’s tied to the authority of the education secretary to “alleviate hardship” during a national emergency, Business Insider reported.
Health experts nationwide had differing reactions to Biden’s declaration.
“When you have the president of the U.S. saying the pandemic is over, why would people line up for their boosters? Why would Congress allocate additional funding for these other strategies and tools?” Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation, told NPR.
“I am profoundly disappointed,” Gounder said. “I think this is a real lack of leadership.”
Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Center for Pandemic Preparedness and Response at the Brown University School of Public Health, told The New York Times that what Biden said could complicate the administration’s COVID-19 agenda.
“An unfortunate sound bite,” Nuzzo said of the president’s comments.
But Dr. Leana S. Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and a former Baltimore health commissioner, agreed with Biden’s assessment in an opinion column for The Washington Post titled, “Biden is right. The pandemic is over.”
Noting the president’s “off-the-cuff comment” has “sparked outrage from all sides,” Wen wrote, “He’s right. By multiple definitions, the pandemic is over. That doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is no longer causing harm; it simply signals the end of an emergency state as COVID has evolved into an endemic disease.”