News →

How Biden's declaring the pandemic 'over' complicates efforts to fight COVID

A pharmacist prepares to administer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots during an event hosted by the Chicago Department of Public Health at the Southwest Senior Center on September 09, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.
A pharmacist prepares to administer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots during an event hosted by the Chicago Department of Public Health at the Southwest Senior Center on September 09, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

President Biden's declaration that "the pandemic is over" could complicate the administration's effort to battle COVID-19, public health experts say.

Biden made the remarks in a Sunday broadcast of 60 Minutes. "We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over," he said. "If you notice, no one's wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it's changing."

The president's comments come as public health officials are trying to convince Americans to get a new booster shot, and as the White House has worked unsuccessfully for months to convince Congress to provide more than $22 billion in new funding for the COVID-19 response. Since Sunday night, Republicans have already used his words to question vaccine mandates that are still in place for the nation's military and other federally funded programs.

At the same time, nearly 400 Americans are dying each day of COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Multiple public health experts called Biden's remarks "unfortunate."

"When you have the president of the U.S. saying the pandemic is over, why would people line up for their boosters? Why would Congress allocate additional funding for these other strategies and tools?" said Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation. "I am profoundly disappointed. I think this is a real lack of leadership."

The remarks could cause political difficulties

The White House is currently fighting an uphill battle in Congress to secure $22.4 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding to support vaccinations, testing and further research. Some Republican support is needed in the Senate to secure the funding, which the administration has been seeking since the spring. It has been hard to come by as some GOP lawmakers argue that there is still unspent money from earlier COVID-19 funding measures that can be used.

In announcing the funding request earlier this month, an official told reporters on a briefing call that there is not currently "enough funding to get through a surge in the fall." The administration has already stopped the program to send free test kits to Americans because of a lack of funds.

The president's words could undercut the effort to get this money further.

Republicans are already using the statement to question the justification for ongoing pandemic measures, including the military's vaccine requirement and mandates for vaccines and masks in federally funded Head Start education programs.

"Biden admitted last night that the COVID pandemic is over. In other words, there is no 'ongoing emergency' to justify his proposal for student loan handouts," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

Some public health experts agreed with Biden's characterization of a "change" in the pandemic. "It is a reasonable thing to do as we collectively move on from this emergency footing that we've been on for the last couple of years, and try to navigate a new normal," said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of UCSF's Department of Medicine. "It's an appropriate way of thinking about the threat as it stands today."

Acknowledging the shift shouldn't stand in the way of funds for COVID-related efforts, said Dr. Tom Frieden, who led the CDC during the Obama administration.

"We don't have a pandemic of Alzheimer's disease or influenza or heart disease. But Congress still needs to fund programs to address those problems," he said.

The ongoing booster campaign could face challenges

The Biden administration's public health leaders have sometimes struggled at times to present a clear, unified message about COVID-19. His administration has at times been criticized for a lack of communication or issuing guidance that seemingly conflicts with available data.

Now, the president's remarks have thrown another wrench into the mix at a crucial moment.

The administration has just rolled out a new bivalent booster shot designed to target the omicron subvariants that have dominated caseloads in the country in recent months, and the agency is working to convince Americans to go out and get it. (Since the CDC recommended the shot earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of Americans have received it.)

But health officials have long struggled to convince Americans to get their shots. Only 68% of Americans completed their original vaccine course, and fewer than half of those have gotten any booster shot.

Most troubling are booster rates for people over 65, said Jennifer Nuzzo, the director of Brown University's Pandemic Center. Data from the CDC show that while the vast majority of older Americans got the original vaccines, far fewer — only about a quarter — have also taken the two original boosters.

"If we do nothing else to reduce the number of deaths from COVID, we need to make sure that people who are at the greatest risk of severe illness and death — and that's people over the age of 65 — that they get their booster," Nuzzo said. "I don't want to inadvertently send the signal that that's not something they need to do anymore."

She and other public health experts pointed to the winter, when a surge of new cases is likely as cold weather pushes socialization indoors, and holidays prompt people to travel to visit family and friends. A winter wave of cases will require tests, vaccines and other efforts to combat COVID, they said.

"I would say, let's not declare the pandemic over," said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University. "Let's say that we're in a very good place, and we need to continue working hard in order to stay in that good place." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Is the pandemic over? Here's how President Biden answered that question Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. It's - but the pandemic is over

MARTIN: The president's surprise pronouncement is not going over well with some people, including folks at high risk from COVID and those suffering from long COVID. Some of them staged a protest Monday outside the White House as a result. Here's one demonstrator, Hannah Davis (ph). She told NPR she got COVID in 2020 and that she is experiencing long-term symptoms.

HANNAH DAVIS: I am extremely disappointed in Biden's comment that the pandemic is over. There is absolutely not enough attention on the long-term effects of this disease.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us this morning. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Clearly, as we heard, some people who are especially vulnerable feel like the pandemic is not yet over. The president is saying it is. You are talking with the public health experts. What are they saying?

STEIN: The short answer from many of the experts I've been talking with is a pretty definitive nope, not even close. While things are certainly way better than they were, say, a year ago, all you need to do is take a look at the number of lives that are still being lost every day to know that COVID is far from being in the rearview mirror. Here's William Hanage at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

WILLIAM HANAGE: Four hundred deaths a day - is that what we're going to be happy with? I think we have to recognize that we still have a big public health problem, regardless of whether or not President Biden says the pandemic is over.

STEIN: If the number of people dying at this rate continues, nearly 150,000 could die from COVID in the next year, and that doesn't even count all those ending up in the hospital and all the lives being upended by the virus - you know, kids missing school, workers missing work, plans being derailed. And the big concern is the president's statement comes at what could be a pivotal moment in the fight against the virus.

MARTIN: A pivotal moment being what?

STEIN: Winter is coming, bringing big fears of yet another winter surge. So the administration is struggling to convince people to once again roll up their sleeves to get new boosters to protect them against omicron. Most people eligible for the first boosters never got them, and declaring the pandemic over is not a great selling point for the new ones. Here's Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We need to get as many people in this country as possible vaccinated with the new boosters. And we already knew we had a challenge to accomplish that, but by declaring the pandemic over, there will be many people who say, well, why do I need to get it?

STEIN: Osterholm and others are especially worried about older people, who are the most likely to die from COVID. And that's not all. Critics say declaring the pandemic over could also make it even harder to convince Congress to approve billions of dollars more to make sure the country has plenty of tests, vaccines and treatments to fight omicron and potentially some new variant that could emerge.

MARTIN: But, Rob, isn't there always that concern? Isn't there always going to be a concern that a new variant is going to emerge? And so in terms of how we live our life, I mean, the vaccines really have changed the trajectory of the pandemic, haven't they?

STEIN: Yes, absolutely, and, you know, that's how the White House has been explaining the president's statement, that he's just trying to point out how much progress the country has made. And, you know, Rachel, some experts agree, like Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.

ROBERT WACHTER: Acknowledging that we're in a new stage, acknowledging the threat isn't gone, but the threat is very different than it was, acknowledging that people have the tools to keep themselves safe, by and large, I think, is a reasonable thing to do as we all collectively sort of move from this emergency footing that we've been on for the last couple of years and try to navigate a new normal.

STEIN: And, you know, he says there's no reason society can't walk and chew gum at the same time - you know, put COVID into proper perspective while keeping up with the testing, vaccinations, treatment and research needed to keep things going in the right direction until the pandemic is truly behind us.

MARTIN: And I imagine we're never really going to know when that is, right? It's not like a president in an election year, no less, we should point out, can just come out and say it is thus.

STEIN: Yeah. You know, and believe it or not, there is really no hard-and-fast definition to declare a pandemic over. I talked about this with Dr. Thomas Frieden. He used to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: There's no formal epidemiologic definition of when a pandemic is over. There's a degree to which it's over when we believe it's over.

STEIN: That said, the World Health Organization has declared the pandemic a public health emergency of international concern, and the WHO says while we may be getting close to ending that, we're certainly not there yet. The U.S. declared the pandemic a public health emergency, and federal officials say the president's statement in no way signals the government is ready to end that, either. Many public health experts are urging the administration to keep it going because it provides crucial powers needed to keep fighting the virus.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.