President Biden boldly claimed in an interview over the weekend that the pandemic is over, but public health experts — and U.S. statistics — put those remarks in serious doubt.
Coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. have been on a steady decline in recent weeks following a slight rise due to the BA.5 omicron subvariant.
However, tens of thousands of new cases are still being recorded daily, hundreds of Americans are still dying of the virus every day and enthusiasm for immunization has all but stagnated.
In his “60 Minutes” interview, Biden acknowledged the U.S. still has “a problem with COVID,” but pointed to the fact that people were not wearing masks at the event he was attending as evidence that the pandemic phase of COVID-19 is over.
He sought to walk back the remarks on Tuesday, saying the pandemic is “not where it was.”
But he has maintained the core of his argument: COVID-19 has reached a new, less severe phase.
Many have been waiting for the pandemic to become endemic.
For a virus to be considered endemic, it would still exist within communities, but it would not severely impact medical providers and health systems.
Available information paints a picture of a country that, while making strides in combating the outbreak, is far from being in the clear.
While cases are declining, they are still far from being the lowest they have ever been throughout the pandemic.
Case rates for COVID-19 currently stand at a seven-day moving average of about 55,000 cases per day, a marked decline from the hundreds of thousands of infections that were seen at the start of this year when the omicron wave peaked.
This rate is still more than twice what the U.S. saw in April before BA.5 rose in dominance.
Since the start of the pandemic, case rates reached their lowest in June 2021 when they dipped below 12,000 per day for a few weeks.
Half of all U.S. counties are currently considered to have low COVID-19 community levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Another 36 percent of counties have medium COVID-19 community levels, and 13 percent have high community levels.
This leaves half the communities in the country in a place where mask wearing is still recommended by the CDC in some situations, particularly for those at high risk for severe illness.
Deaths and hospitalizations
Coronavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations have continued to drop since the middle of the summer, indicating a concurrent fall in people experiencing severe illness from COVID-19.
As cases have dropped, coronavirus-related deaths have also fallen to a seven-day moving average of under 400. Apart from a slight rise in deaths due to the spread of BA.5 over the summer, deaths have remained relatively low in recent months — though they have been lower at past points in the pandemic.
Virologists and public health officials have previously said the end of the pandemic will not be marked by a certain metric. However, 300 to 500 deaths per day is still a cause for concern and caution among stakeholders.
Thousands of hospital admissions due to COVID-19 are still being recorded by the CDC, with the current seven-day average standing at more than 4,000 per day.
According to the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 30,000 inpatient hospital beds are being used for COVID-19 patients, representing between 4 and 5 percent of all inpatient beds being used.
Almost two years after COVID-19 vaccines were first deployed in the U.S., only about two-thirds of the population has been immunized against the coronavirus.
Among those who have been vaccinated, the majority are also still relying on the protection conferred from the first two doses. Throughout the pandemic, immunity from both prior infections and vaccinations has been observed to wane over time, with health officials recommending a booster shot after an initial course of vaccination.
As the U.S. heads into the fall and winter, airborne pathogens like the flu and COVID-19 generally are expected to see higher rates of transmission.
While vaccinations and therapeutics mean infections are less likely to become severe cases, an infected individual still poses a risk to others, especially those who are immunocompromised.
“If you get vaccinated yourself, it doesn’t only protect you, it protects all the vulnerable populations around you,” said Daniel McQuillen, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
McQuillen estimated that about a quarter of the population is not as protected from COVID-19 as they could be. And he reiterated that infected individuals could infect several others, prolonging the virus’s spread.
“You impact both how communities exist and also how the medical community exists, because those people are going to take up outpatient space and time from other people as well,” McQuiston said.
Throughout the pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been an unpredictable pathogen.
Numerous new strains have cropped up around the world, fueling new surges in the U.S.
The BA.5 omicron subvariant accounts for 85 percent of coronavirus cases in the country. The BA.4.6 subvariant has recently started to grow in prevalence, currently accounting for 10 percent of cases.
The World Health Organization only lists one variant of concern, the omicron variant. But health experts have routinely cautioned against presuming to know how the virus will change.
C. Brandon Ogbunu, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT’s Department of Chemistry, told The Hill that it would be wrong to behave as though the SARS-CoV-2 virus has run out of new variants, noting that a similar mistake was made during the delta wave of cases.
“Even if we never see a new strain again over the next century, it still wouldn’t be wise to say there is no other variant in existence,” Ogbunu said. “I think we have not seen one in some time, which is encouraging, and certainly it is encouraging for our biomedical and public health interventions … but it is unwise to come to some kind of global conclusion about what is possible or not.”
Biden’s claim on Sunday elicited surprised responses from multiple public health experts and stakeholders, with many expressing concerns that his remarks inadvertently sent the wrong message.
Ogbunu said he felt that Biden’s declaration was made for “political purposes.”
“Knowing how words are perceived, I thought it was irresponsible and inaccurate,” he said. “I think by the definitions I use for a pandemic, I would say we are at a different point in the pandemic than we were. I think we are at a point where we have useful tools to reduce transmission and treat patients, but I would not say that the pandemic is over.”
“I get what he was trying to get at, but he didn’t say it in a way that was very helpful,” McQuillen said of Biden’s interview. “If you’re going to be very exact in the definitions and all that kind of stuff, it’s not right. The pandemic isn’t over. It’s just in a bit of a different phase.”
“The fact that the administration is still trying to get support for getting vaccinations and other therapeutics and tests out into the community from Congress is a reflection of how they really think,” McQuillen added, referencing the Biden administration’s push for Congress to approve billions of dollars more in COVID-19 relief funding.
However, other public health experts refrained from outright saying Biden was incorrect.
Robert Wachter, a physician and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said he didn’t know if the pandemic was over, calling that claim a “judgement call.”
“But clearly the threat is far lower than it was, people have the means to stay fairly safe (though many are choosing not to), & at some point we need to shift from an emergency footing to a sustainable long-term strategy,” Wachter said.
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