Biden: Pandemic is over, but COVID-19 battle continues

Nearly 400 people a day are dying from COVID-19, but the public psychological impact has become less profound


John Woolfolk
Bay Area News Group

WASHINGTON — “The pandemic is over,” President Joe Biden has declared — stirring debate in a country where few pay much mind to COVID-19 anymore while the disease still kills hundreds of Americans a day.

Though the president’s remarks Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes drew jabs from some quarters and puzzlement from others, they raise a question medical experts have struggled to answer clearly: When will we know the COVID-19 pandemic is over? In many ways, that depends on how you define it.

President Joe Biden smiles as he test drives an electric Cadillac Lyriq through the show room at the Detroit Auto Show Wednesday. While at the auto show, Biden said the pandemic is over but a COVID-19 problem continues.
President Joe Biden smiles as he test drives an electric Cadillac Lyriq through the show room at the Detroit Auto Show Wednesday. While at the auto show, Biden said the pandemic is over but a COVID-19 problem continues. (Photo/Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

“We’re still in a pandemic by any clear definition of it, but we’ve chosen not to respond to it psychologically and in the way we live our daily lives,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

“The pandemic in people’s minds, if not epidemiologists’ definitions, means that the world has stopped to deal with this,” he said. “Our society isn’t turned upside down trying to deal with it (anymore). So I think this is a political and psychological take on the pandemic, as opposed to an epidemiological one.”

Here’s where Americans are with that definition. A Sept. 13 Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index poll found the country has “largely — though not completely — moved on from the pandemic,” with 46% having “returned to their pre-COVID lives” and just 37% wearing a mask outside the home sometimes.

Reported cases have been declining since July, though they remain almost three times the level in April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Actual numbers undoubtedly are higher due to unreported infections confirmed through at-home tests.

But the CDC reports nearly 400 people a day are dying from COVID-19, almost twice the level of July 2021.

Biden’s remarks came as he walked the floor of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the first held since 2019. Asked if the pandemic is over, the president — walking without the black face mask he wore on the campaign trail and so often in public appearances since — said yes.

“We still have a problem with COVID, we’re still doing a lot of work on it,” Biden said. “But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it.”

“Wish this was true,” Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, responded Monday on Twitter, noting Biden also suggested in June 2021 that the country would celebrate freedom from COVID on Independence Day. What followed were successive waves of infections and deaths.

“What’s over,” Topol said, is the president’s and “our government’s will to get ahead of it, with magical thinking on the new bivalent boosters.”

Stanford Medical School professor Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an author of the Great Barrington Declaration that opposed lockdowns to reduce the spread of the virus in favor of policies focused on protecting those at highest risk, responded that the president’s remarks were overdue.

“Pres. Biden is right,” Bhattacharya tweeted. “The pandemic emergency is over. Research for better treatments should continue, but the lockdowns, restrictions, and fear-mongering need to stop.”

But Dr. Bob Wachter, who chairs the medical department at the University of California-San Francisco and has chronicled on Twitter his efforts to avoid the virus, which infected his wife, said the answer is more complex.

“Clearly the threat is far lower than it was,” he tweeted to his 280,000 followers Monday, and “people have the means to stay fairly safe,” even though many are choosing not to. But “at some point,” he added, “we need to shift from an emergency footing to a sustainable long-term strategy.”

Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said there’s unlikely to be any official declaration of the pandemic’s end, and that it more likely will become apparent in hindsight. But while “we are moving in the right direction,” she said, “we are still losing an unacceptable number of people to COVID.”

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said last week that “we’ve never been in a better place to end the COVID19 pandemic, but only if all countries, manufacturers, communities and individuals step up and seize this opportunity. Otherwise, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, disruption and uncertainty.”

Jennifer Taylor gets that. She is a registered nurse in the emergency room at Kaiser Oakland who lives with her sister with a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment,. She said Monday that she just saw two more patients admitted with COVID. “It feels early to call it over,” she said.

“It’s pretty hard on immunocompromised people to be suddenly calling it over with 400 people still dying every day,” said Taylor, who still wears a mask indoors and avoids crowded indoor events.

But Alex Bell, the owner of Snow White Coffee Bar in Oakland, no longer wears a mask.

“As far as everyday interactions,” Bell said, “it’s been over for eight or nine months.”

Despite the varying opinions, the U.S. and many state governments, including California, are still treating the pandemic as a public health emergency. And while the CDC has softened guidance for reducing transmission of the virus, vaccine mandates remain at the federal state and local levels.

If the current pace of U.S. deaths held steady, there would be about 140,000 COVID-19 deaths a year. By comparison, the CDC estimates that influenza kills 12,000 to 52,000 a year. The country will have to decide if three times that level of deaths from COVID-19 is acceptable, Swartzberg said.

“What Americans are saying when they don’t list COVID as major threat to society,” he said, “is that this is the new norm.”

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Staff Writer Harriet Blair Rowan contributed to this report.

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