While President Biden said in an interview Sunday that the COVID-19 “pandemic is over,” some experts said that it’s too soon for people to let their guard down with hundreds of people around the country still dying each day from the highly contagious disease.
In an interview that aired on the CBS news show “60 Minutes,” Biden told interviewer Scott Pelley that “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s — but the pandemic is over.”
The Washington Post reported that Biden’s remarks were “apparently off the cuff” and came as a surprise to administration officials. The pandemic is still causing immense loss, with a seven-day average of 391 deaths and nearly 61,000 cases per day as of mid-September.
The numbers are well below previous peaks but have stubbornly resisted dropping much further. COVID-19 remains one of the top causes of deaths in the United States.
Dr. Ashish Jha, Biden’s White House COVID-19 response coordinator, sounded a more cautious note when he spoke last week at the second annual Globe Summit. While the United States had made “great progress,” the virus was still “exacting an unacceptably high toll on our society,” he said. He also noted that “each of the last two winters we have seen COVID rise in significant ways.”
One expert borrowed a colorful word from Biden’s vocabulary to describe his remark, calling it “malarkey.”
“Is the pandemic DIFFERENT? Sure,” Dr. Megan Ranney, academic dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, tweeted Sunday, citing several reasons the country is better positioned now against the virus, such as vaccinations, widespread prior infection, testing, and treatments. “But over?! With 400 deaths a day?! I call malarkey.”
Ranney, an emergency room doctor, likened Biden’s declaration to a patient’s family pushing to take them home from the hospital too early. “That’s how it feels to be told the pandemic is ‘over,’” she said. “‘On the right path’ is not the same as ‘cured.’”
Sometimes in the ER I pull a patient back from the brink of death - central lines, pressors, fluids, much more.— Megan Ranney MD MPH 🌻 (@meganranney) September 19, 2022
But I have only temporized. I work on getting them a hospital bed, to continue rx.
And then the family says “they look so much better, can’t they just go home?!” 😬😳
Andrew Lover, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in an e-mail that he thought Biden’s comment was “premature.”
“There’s extensive transmission in most parts of the country, most people are waning out of their last shots, and second booster uptake is quite modest,” he warned. “We simply cannot expect to not see new variants, and this virus has undermined all of our public health measures again and again.”
Eric J. Topol, a professor of molecular medicine who is the director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, a biomedical research facility, tweeted Sunday that the only thing that’s over, in his opinion, is Biden and the government’s “will to get ahead of the virus.”
He suggested officials are placing too much faith in the updated, bivalent boosters and warned of problems such as long COVID and the possible rise of a new, dangerous variant. Not enough people are getting their boosters, and declaring the pandemic over won’t help, he said.
He also reminded people of the short-lived optimism during the “summer of freedom” of 2021, when the pandemic appeared to be on its last legs but rapidly surged again with the arrival of the Delta and Omicron variants.
Wish this was true. What's over is @POTUS's and our government's will to get ahead of it, with magical thinking on the new bivalent boosters. Ignores #LongCovid, inevitability of new variants, and our current incapability for blocking infections and transmission https://t.co/sZyChorhC9— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) September 19, 2022
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, tweeted, “It ain’t over,” noting the hundreds of deaths per day nationally. He said he expected another variant to appear this winter and urged people to get their updated, bivalent boosters.
465 Americans lost their lives today from COVID19. Depending on the org crunching numbers, Covid = 2nd 3rd or 4th leading cause of death on a daily basis in USA. It ain’t over. And some of us expect (me for example) yet another major variant this winter. Get your bivalent booster— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) September 19, 2022
Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology and global health at the Boston University School of Public Health. said by e-mail, “I definitely understand that people want to feel back to normal.” At the same time, he said, hundreds of people are dying from COVID-19 per day, and it’s possible a new variant will arrive on the scene.
“It’s a really difficult needle to thread to say we have to be cautious about what comes next while also saying we are in a good position,” he said. “I can see why President Biden said this but I think we should be much more focused on what our current state is and our optimism about the future rather than on whether it is over or not.”
Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, said that Biden was right that COVID-19 is “no longer an epidemic,” but caution is still advisable.
“President Biden is correct in saying that COVID is no longer an epidemic, and he is also correct in stating that, ‘We still have a problem with COVID.’ Both statements are true,” he said in an e-mail.
Landrigan, a former CDC epidemiologist, advised people to receive the updated booster shots as soon as possible. “It is safe and it is highly effective,” he said.
“If you are planning to go into a crowded venue — church, rock concert, sports event — consider wearing a mask, especially if you are over 55 years of age or have any chronic health problems such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease,” he said.
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.