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On COVID, the president put his foot in it

Nobody wants to hear this, but we are nowhere near the finish line here.

President Biden spoke in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Aug. 26, in Washington.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Aw, come on, Mr. President!

Why did Joe Biden have to go and say the pandemic is over? Sure, he said we still have a problem with COVID and that we’re still doing a lot of work on it. He clearly meant “over” in the sense that most people had gone back to living their lives, not that COVID is done.

And yes, some in his administration tried to add some perspective in the wake of that “60 Minutes” interview, making it clear that Biden — whose administration transformed this country’s response to the virus — wasn’t trucking in the lethal denialism of his predecessor.

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But as some of you may have noticed, nuance isn’t a big thing in this country these days. Predictably, some Republicans immediately seized on Biden’s comment to call for an end to federal safety measures and funding meant to arrest the spread of the virus.

That would be a giant mistake. We’ve made massive progress since the pandemic’s early days, but COVID is still killing about 400 people a day in this country. Last week alone, we lost 45 people in Massachusetts, and there were 9,000 new infections reported, though the real number is surely way higher, given that people are mostly testing at home these days. Even here, we’re still struggling to convince people to get the booster shots that would arrest the spread of the virus into the winter months, when infections will likely spike.

Look, I get it. Those of us who haven’t lost someone to the plague are well and truly over it. We’ve been at it so long, it’s hard to avoid letting down our guard. The virus is still serious: It kicked my behind for two weeks in April; one of my siblings was scary-sick for a chunk of the summer; my kid’s teacher was flattened earlier this month. There is so much we don’t yet know about COVID’s long-term effects. Yet I still catch myself forgetting or blowing off the most basic precautions, putting on my mask in the supermarket only after the sight of somebody more vigilant reminds me.

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If a nervous Nellie like me is slipping, we really are moving on. That’s partly survival. We could barely comprehend 100,000 deaths, and now we’ve lost well over a million people. How do we go on without some measure of denial?

But denial is a luxury enjoyed only by those from whom the pandemic has taken relatively little. Alex Goldstein is still trying to serve the others with Faces of COVID, the Twitter account that pays tribute to those who died of the disease, in the hopes of making their loved ones feel less alone — less stranded in their grief.

“There is very little else happening out there that is reminding folks of the reality of the loss we’re still experiencing,” he said. “So I’ll keep screaming into the void, I guess.”

And public health officials are still working mightily to head off more losses, trying to convince people to take game-changing new vaccines that are tailored to specific variants. Bisola Ojikutu, head of the Boston Public Health Commission, does not like what she is seeing out there right now: Infection and hospitalization rates are up over the last two weeks. Vaccination and booster rates — especially among children — are still way too low.

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“The perception that this is over is an incredible challenge,” she said. “I did understand the president’s statement, but I don’t agree with it.”

It’s especially not over when it comes to people of color, on whom the virus has fallen most heavily, Ojikutu said. So the city is working hard to remind residents that people are still dying from the virus and offering $75 gift cards and other giveaways at special back-to-school events to get more kids vaccinated.

There’s no way to say this without being pilloried by those who never took COVID seriously enough, or being seen as a buzzkill by those who were plenty vigilant once but now just want their lives back: We are not at the finish line here.

The president knows admitting that won’t win votes in the midterms. But it will save lives.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.