“The pandemic is over” is surely what everyone wanted to hear. President Biden made the declaration in a Sunday “60 Minutes” broadcast. But before rushing out to the ticker-tape parade, sit down. The pandemic is still raging — in the sense that a dangerous virus is infecting, sickening and killing people, mutating to survive and haunting the globe. The pandemic has shifted — and normalcy has returned in many ways — but it is not over.
Why Mr. Biden said otherwise is obvious. The midterm elections are coming, and Americans feel an overwhelming sense of fatigue. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” the president told journalist Scott Pelley. “Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”
No hard-and-fast rules mark the exact moment a pandemic ends. The nation and the world have come a long way since the early lockdowns and the devastating delta and omicron waves. Vaccines against the coronavirus are safe and highly effective, giving people confidence to resume many activities. Classrooms are back in person, air travel has revived, commuter traffic is picking up. A lot of the worst misery is in the rearview mirror.
But the pandemic is surely not over. The seven-day moving average of daily deaths in the United States is nearly 400 and has plateaued at this terrible level since April. The average of new daily cases is 60,000, way higher than in the spring. Weighed down by the virus, average life expectancy of Americans fell in 2020 and 2021, the sharpest two-year decline in nearly 100 years. Covid-19 is the third-leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. Long covid — those suffering a constellation of maladies after the immediate symptoms dissipate — threatens millions of people.
The natural progression of the pandemic emergency will be transformation into a more predictable pattern — endemic disease, such as the flu. But waves of new variants have been anything but predictable. The arrival of omicron was just last Thanksgiving. What’s in store next? No certainty exists, except that the virus is still mutating.
Mr. Biden has not ended the official pandemic emergency. When the official emergency ends, some 15 million will lose Medicaid coverage; the reason for a student loan repayment pause will end; the rationale for Trump-era border restrictions, still held in place by a court, will disappear. All this policy transition must not be done carelessly or hastily.
Perhaps the biggest worry stemming from Mr. Biden’s comment is that it will further undermine political resolve in Congress to keep up the fight against covid. Already, Mr. Biden’s request for additional funding for vaccines, diagnostic testing and therapeutics has languished. If complacency and fatigue continue to take over, the nation won’t be prepared for a new variant just when it is most needed. “The pandemic is over” sounds nice, so desperately welcome. But we are not there, yet.
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