Biden declares pandemic ‘over’ and leaves experts confused

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Paul Warner

With more than 27,000 people still hospitalized with COVID-19 on any given day across the country, with more than 500 dying and winter approaching, President Joe Biden made a startling assessment of the condition Sunday night. of the pandemic.

“The pandemic is over,” Biden said in an interview on TBEN. 60 minutes. “We still have a problem with COVID. We are still working on it. But the pandemic is over.”

A statement with that degree of public impact would normally be announced in a formal address, such as one from the Oval Office — or at least not as a casual remark during a riff on a tour of a car 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 claim is the exact opposite of what the country needs to hear 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 in the United States. Georgetown Law Center, which expressed deep concern that Biden’s comments will further convince the American public that “sensible precautions” no longer need to be taken.

Joe Biden says COVID-19 pandemic is ‘over’ in ’60 minute’ interview

“The president has advanced too far and he should try to back it up,” Gostin said. “He intended to make it clear that the risk of COVID is not as great as it was a year ago, and that is a fair point. But that’s far from saying the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”

“There’s just 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 outperform existing vaccines and therapies? What will be the impact of long COVID-19 years, and possibly decades, from now? What other challenges cannot we foresee in three years into COVID-19 that will challenge us collectively in 2025 , 2030, 2040 and beyond?”

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The issue, health authorities told The Daily Beast, is not so much about Biden committing a political blunder as about Biden potentially weakening the public’s resolve amid an ongoing public health crisis.

“That comment for me, that becomes the killer. People just don’t get vaccinated,” said Oved Amitay, CEO of The Solve ME/CFS Initiative, which focuses on post-infectious diseases, including long-term Covid.

Amitay doesn’t think Biden’s comment was made purely for political interests, but was instead prompted by a bigger shift in public sentiment around Covid. As Biden noted in his 60 minutes interview while walking through an auto show filled with maskless customers, life in America has gradually returned to pre-pandemic normals. Fewer masks, workplaces and schools have reopened and vaccines are widely available.

But those who are elderly, sick, immunocompromised or plagued by long-term Covid say the rhetoric is leaving them behind.

“The pandemic is not over for them,” Amitay said.

Since March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than a 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 expressed in recent months its hopes of changing the country’s stance in the fight against the virus. Health officials have begun to shift responsibility for vaccine distribution to private suppliers as the first variant-specific booster shots have hit pharmacies and the emergency declaration, which has been in effect for nearly three years, expires next month.

But despite those encouraging signs, the White House has publicly insisted that the coming winter could pose risks if basic protections are not taken.

“We have a virus out there that is still circulating and still killing hundreds of Americans a day,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, told reporters earlier this month. “We all, as Americans, must work together to try to protect Americans and do what we can to see our health care system through a difficult fall and winter.”

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That task becomes much more difficult, O’Connor said, as the president reiterates overly optimistic statements by previous administrations about the state of public health crises, dating back to the Reagan administration.

“I am reminded of the claim made by Margaret Heckler, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, that we would have an HIV vaccine ready for testing within about two years of the virus’s discovery,” O’Connor said. “Viruses are cunning and we should not overestimate our own abilities to control them and use ingenuity to make ‘endings’ 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 claim that it is “over”.

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“Biden’s announcement that the pandemic is over was premature… It reminded me of George Bush standing on the aircraft carrier under a sign announcing ‘Mission Accomplished,'” Berrent said, referring to the 2003 image of former President George Bush who called out a major battle, operations in Iraq had ended.

“Wishful thinking, focused on the constant inevitability of midterm elections, is not the basis for good public health policy,” she added.

Notably, Biden’s comment comes a few weeks before the midterm elections, with the Democratic Party’s control of Congress at stake. When the pandemic is over, as Biden suggests, a declaration of victory would allow Democrats to take credit for overcoming the global virus that has ravaged American public health for nearly three years.

But the political benefits of a “Victory over COVID” statement could undermine the public health campaign Biden himself is trying to bolster, said John P. Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medicine.

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“If the pandemic was really ‘over’, why are health officials putting such emphasis on the current booster campaign?” Moore told The Daily Beast, adding that he assumed Biden’s comments were motivated by the fact that many Americans are already acting as if the pandemic is over — and whether the pandemic is actually over is another matter.

“Whether the pandemic is REALLY over depends on how the winter months go,” Moore said. “Will there be another wave of infection at the end of November and in the winter months, such as in 2020 and 2021? Time will tell.”

From a very technical epidemiological standpoint, the president may not be completely off-base, said Dr. David Freedman, 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 the growth of a disease is exponential.”

But, Freedman noted, there’s no concrete definition of when a pandemic “ends” — making Biden’s concrete statement wobbly at best.

“I’m not sure an agency like the WHO will say, ‘today is the day it’s over,'” Freedman said.

On the hill, some of Biden’s Democratic allies just kept scratching their heads. sen. Dick Durban (D-IL), the Democratic whip in the Senate, told CNN on Monday, “We all hope it’s over — no one is going to predict for sure it will. I’m not.”

But the senator wondered if there might be more to Biden’s statement.

“Maybe he knows more than I do,” Durbin said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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