President Biden’s off-the-cuff comment during a “60 Minutes” interview that “the pandemic is over” has sparked outrage from all sides. Republicans are accusing Biden of hypocrisy as he asks Congress for more covid-19 funding, while some on the left point to the disease’s continued death toll as evidence that the pandemic is nowhere near its finish line.
These criticisms don’t detract from Biden’s point. He’s right. By multiple definitions, the pandemic is over. That doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is no longer causing harm; it simply signals the end of an emergency state as covid has evolved into an endemic disease.
A pandemic is something that upends our daily lives and profoundly alters the way that we work, go to school, worship and socialize. That was certainly the case in March 2020. I was among the public health experts who urged people to “stay home, save lives.” We called for Americans to avoid “play dates, sleepovers, bars, restaurants, parties or houses of worship.” Employers sent workers home en masse. Schools pivoted to remote instruction.
Things changed with the arrival of vaccines. Many individuals, once vaccinated, began resuming their pre-pandemic activities. Others, like my family, waited until younger kids could receive the shots. By now, the vast majority of Americans have been vaccinated or recovered from covid-19 or both. The preventive antibody Evusheld and treatments such as Paxlovid and monoclonal antibodies provide further protection against severe illness.
As a result, most Americans have turned the page and abandoned mitigation measures. By August, according to a Morning Consult poll, just 14 percent of adults viewed covid as a severe health risk. This tracks with their other findings that only 28 percent still mask in all settings, while 75 percent were comfortable with indoor dining.
For most of the country, the pandemic is effectively over because it is no longer altering people’s day-to-day lives. To them, covid has evolved from a dire deadly disease to one that’s more akin to the flu. It’s still something people want to avoid, and they’ll take basic steps to do so, such as getting an annual vaccine. Some might choose to take extra precautions, such as masking in indoor settings. But the societal end of the pandemic has already arrived, a sentiment reflected in Biden’s comment.
counterpointThe Checkup With Dr. Wen: 5 tips for reducing covid risk over Thanksgiving
The scientific end of the pandemic might have arrived, too. On this point, there is disagreement among experts. On the one hand, the coronavirus continues to cause illness and death. About 30,000 people are currently hospitalized with covid in the United States, and more than 400 people a day are still dying from it. Long covid might lead to lasting health effects in as many as 1 in 5 infected with the coronavirus.
On the other hand, deaths globally from covid-19 have fallen to their lowest level since March 2020. The actual numbers may be far lower. Some researchers have argued that reported covid death counts are substantially overestimated because hospitalized patients are tested routinely regardless of symptoms, and being hospitalized with covid is different from being ill because of it. An infectious-disease physician in Boston told NPR that 70 percent of reported covid hospitalizations in her hospital are due to patients testing incidentally for the coronavirus.
Perhaps the most significant rationale in favor of the transition from pandemic to endemic is the growing consensus that covid will never be eradicated. Countries that instituted some of the strictest policies have lifted them. Even New Zealand recently removed mask and vaccine mandates and lifted all pandemic travel restrictions. China is the only outlier still pursuing a zero-covid policy that’s exacting a huge economic and humanitarian toll.
Biden’s detractors argue that he can’t have it both ways — that he can’t say that the pandemic is over and still ask Congress for funding and encourage Americans to get boosted. These critics are willfully misrepresenting public health policy. Just because a disease is endemic doesn’t mean the level of illness is acceptable or should be ignored. Consider HIV and cancer. These are not considered pandemics, but the goal is still to prevent disease and provide affected patients with state-of-the art medical care.
Indeed, there are many other ailments that deserve far more attention, from the epidemics of opioid overdose and obesity to the reemergence of polio and the worsening mental health crisis. Removing the “pandemic” designation for covid places it among the list of diseases harming Americans, all of which require focus and funding.
It is also imperative that we learn the lessons from covid to bolster our inadequate public health infrastructure. People across the political spectrum should agree that we cannot afford to allow our lives to be upended again. As the United States ends its emergency footing in this pandemic, we must double down on efforts to prevent the next.