On Sept. 18, President Joe Biden declared on “60 Minutes” that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, saying, “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it … but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.
Biden’s comments caught many people in the public health community off guard, including the president’s own health officials. Based on the formal epidemiological definition, a pandemic is “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.”
The United States and world have largely returned to normal, with people going to school and work maskless and attending crowded sports games and concerts. However, based on the data, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to the president, said Tuesday that the world is not done with the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only was Biden’s statement blatantly false, but it was exceptionally poorly timed considering that COVID-19 situation is worsening in the United State. As we transition from summer into winter, when COVID-19 has historically been most destructive, the president should have been more tactful.
In addition to the fact that the COVID-19 virus is still a pandemic, there are several political reasons why Biden should not have stated that the pandemic is over. One reason that Biden’s announcement was politically unwise is that the Biden administration is currently working on securing $22.4 billion in COVID-19 funding to stockpile tests and vaccines, support research into the virus, and study the global vaccine response.
Republicans already pushed back against the request in March, asking how the previous trillions of dollars in COVID-19 funding were spent, which forced the White House to pause a program that would distribute tests to many American homes. The U.S. also had to reduce the importation and production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, which could seriously harm the country’s ability to distribute those goods. The lack of funding also delays further research into new COVID-19 vaccines, which could lead to a weakened ability to respond to a new variant.
Biden’s announcement led even more Republicans to question the necessity of further funding, with one outright saying that such a statement makes it “eminently harder for sure” to secure the funding and “If it’s over, then I wouldn’t suspect they need any more money.”
Vaccination rates are another reason why Biden should not have announced that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Public health officials around the country are encouraging Americans to get a second booster shot, and their ability to be persuasive may be hindered by the president’s comments. In September, public health officials rolled out a new vaccine aimed at combating the threat of sub variants, the Omicron variant in particular, that have made up the majority of cases in the U.S. over the past few months. The CDC recommends that everyone 12 and older get a second booster shot in order to restore the protection that has waned since the first booster, which can help to prevent serious illness from COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent vaccination campaign have been politicized since 2020, and Biden’s comments could lead to even fewer Americans getting vaccinated. Only 68% of Americans received the original COVID-19 vaccines, and less than half of them got a booster shot. It seems likely that even fewer people will receive a second shot. With this data in mind, along with the reality of the COVID-19 threat, one has to wonder why Biden announced that the pandemic is over. It goes against any public health guidance, and will likely lead to lower vaccination rates and more cases of the virus. If the pandemic is over, why does the virus still pose a threat worthy of vaccination?
The day after Biden’s interview, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services tweeted that the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency remains in effect. This announcement triggered backlash from Republicans, who used Biden’s declaration of the end of the pandemic to call into question many existing COVID-19 restrictions. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., wanted to know when Biden would end the vaccine requirements for federal employees, while Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., questioned the necessity of the pause on student loan repayments.
In the days after Biden’s interview, his public health officials scrambled to clarify what he meant. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that while the country is in a better place, “we are not where we need to be if we are going to ‘live with the virus.’” The lack of clear guidance from federal authorities will lead to confusion about what the actual public health recommendations are.
While Biden was likely trying to convey that we are in a better place in our response to the pandemic, defining a pandemic is not a matter of semantics. What the president, his staff and his public health officials say about the state of the pandemic will determine how people act and what measures are taken by the federal government to prevent further spread.
The funding that Congress provides for research of the virus and investment in testing and vaccination infrastructure will help the country’s COVID-19 response into the winter season, preventing illness and allowing scientists to have a better understanding of the virus. The president’s comments will likely lead to a reduction in the amount of money allocated for these essential goods and services, which could make the COVID-19 situation worse this winter and even cost lives.
Biden’s comments are grossly irresponsible. He should walk them back in the strongest possible terms in order to be in line with recommendations from his own officials and to ensure that public health funding remains available in the future.
Lydia Storella is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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