Infectious Disease

Biden says COVID-19 pandemic ‘is over,’ but experts not so sure

September 19, 2022

3 min read

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President Joe Biden on Sunday told “60 Minutes” that the COVID-19 pandemic “is over,” saying the worst was likely behind us, but experts questioned if that is the right message for Americans — and whether it is true.

“The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID, and we’re still doing a lot of work on it, but the pandemic is over. If you’ll notice, no one is wearing masks, [and] everybody seems to be in pretty good shape,” Biden told the CBS reporter Scott Pelley as they walked through the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

IDN0922Biden_COVID_Graphic_01_WEB

Biden called the auto show — which did not appear crowded during his interview, although people could be seen wearing masks — a “perfect example” of the shifting challenge the nearly 3-year-old pandemic now poses the country, but experts were not sure it was the right time tell the country the pandemic is at an end.

“The level of transmission has diminished from a month ago, but it’s still quite high and many [epidemiologists] are expecting yet another winter wave,” Peter J. Hotez, md, PhD, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital for Vaccine Development, told Healio. “Therefore, we need to continue our full court press to get Americans to accept their new booster and to encourage parents to vaccinate their kids.”

“We aren’t doing well in those areas,” Hotez said.

As of Friday, the CDC reported an average of just under 61,000 new cases, 391 deaths and more than 4,300 new hospital admissions linked to COVID-19 each day in the United States. All three numbers have slowly ticked down since earlier this summer, but the number of deaths increased last month, and the average number of cases stayed roughly the same. Overall, however, the risk for mortality from COVID-19 during the omicron wave has gone down.

“It is clear that we are now in much different circumstances with this virus than we were in 2020,” Jennifer B nuzzo, DrPH, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health, told Healio. “But that is due to the development of tools like tests, vaccines and medicines that help prevent this virus from harming us in the way sit once could.”

“Our obsession with trying to label COVID as done is the problem. It risks signaling to the millions of Americans who remain at risk of severe illness that they don’t have to go ahead and get that booster that is very much going to keep them out of the hospital,” Nuzzo said.

Not only could such statements dissuade people from getting boosters, it risks sending a signal to lawmakers and government agencies that the emergency is over and returning the country to scrambling for tests, medicines or vaccines, Nuzzo said.

Amesh A. Adalja, MDsenior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Healio that he generally agreed with Biden’s comments and noted that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc, made similar statements last week when he said “the end is in sight.”

“When one looks at COVID-19 in the United States currently, it is clearly been shifted to an outpatient illness. It no longer has the ability to threaten hospital capacity,” Adalja said, arguing that the tools developed to fight SARS-CoV-2 are “greater than for any other respiratory illness.”

Although the beginning of a pandemic may be clear, it is not always easy to tell when they are over, according to William P HanageMD, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Mathematical modelers, he said, would likely look at “a lack of large outbreaks and infection numbers being primarily driven by people becoming susceptible,” and others would likely compare COVID-19 to other infectious diseases, like influenza.

“Policymakers will have their own definitions, which will reflect as much how people feel as how many of them are getting infected,” Hanage said.

Given the availability of vaccines, antivirals, home tests, monoclonal antibodies and wastewater surveillance, “the post pandemic world is not the world of 2019,” Adalja said, although he acknowledged “we will always have a baseline level of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

Hanage worries that people who were on the fence about getting a booster shot might skip it if they think the pandemic is over.

“This is one of the most serious possible consequences. But it depends how many such people there are,” Hanage said. “There might not be that many of them … as people have already divided into their different camps when it comes to the vaccines. For a country that has prioritized vaccination as a way to control this, the US is remarkably bad at vaccinating people. This would only count as the most recent misstep.”

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