Last week, President Joe Biden said the COVID-19 pandemic is “over” during an appearance on 60 Minutes. Without citing concrete evidence to back up this sweeping statement, Biden conceded that the U.S. still has “a problem with COVID,” but that it has entered the endemic phase.
White House officials later clarified that the federal COVID-19 strategy remains the same, but Biden’s comment has evoked mixed reactions from the public. What does the end of the pandemic mean? And who really gets to decide when the pandemic is over?
“While we are still at the mercy of viral mutations to cause big surges (instead of, for example, seasonal flu where we know what to expect & when, we know when to vaccinate, etc.), there’s nothing ‘endemic’ about COVID-19,” Wallace wrote.
According to CDC data included in the thread, over 90% of Americans are living in a county with high or substantial transmission of COVID-19 right now, and the country is still averaging more than 500 deaths from the virus per day.
CDC data also shows that only 68% of the U.S. population have gotten the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines, and only half of this subsection have had at least one booster.
Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, a social epidemiologist and founding dean of the public health program at University of California, Irvine, said she understands Biden’s attempt to reassure the American people who have been struggling for more than two years, but the reality is that we are still in a pandemic.
She said making a premature statement that the pandemic is over may give people a false sense of security and lead to reduced COVID funding from congress.
“We must be careful about saying it is over,” she said. “We still need resources to continue vaccination and to address vaccine hesitancy.”
So what will it look like when the pandemic actually does come to an end? Will it be similar to the 2003 SARS epidemic, which saw case counts of nearly zero when the World Health Organization officially declared that the outbreak had been contained?
Unfortunately, according to Boden-Albala, the conclusion of this pandemic won’t look anything like the SARS outbreak, because the virus followed a different pattern. Unlike SARS, COVID will not be eradicated.
“COVID is not burning out, and there is short-lived immunity,” she said.
Instead, she said COVID will slowly become more endemic and will eventually circulate at moderate levels like the flu, causing outbreaks from time to time and occasionally severe illness or death in vulnerable individuals.
According to the CDC, the flu typically results in anywhere from 12,000 to 52,000 deaths during flu season—from roughly October to May—each year.
Biden’s comments also failed to take into account the reality of long COVID.
CDC data from earlier this summer suggested that nearly one in five COVID patients suffer from prolonged illness. Long COVID is a mass disabling event that could mean up to 1 million people at a time may be unable to work, according to a recent analysis.
Boden-Albala said public health officials should be the ones to decide when the pandemic is officially over based on what is really happening in populations. And politicians, who make important financial decisions, should follow public health recommendations.
In the meantime, she said, people should still take appropriate precautions and make an appointment to get the new bivalent vaccine.
So far, Boden-Albala said the U.S. is not seeing a substantial uptake of the new booster shot, a reality that could further delay the end of the pandemic.
“I advise everyone to watch the prevalence of COVID in your community,” she said. “Determine the risk levels of where you are going to see if mask-wearing makes sense. For example, at airports, while traveling, and with crowds in indoor spaces. Understand the symptoms, stay home if feeling unwell, and test.”
The pandemic might eventually become endemic, meaning COVID-19 will stay and circulate like influenza, but its severity will be greatly reduced. However, experts say the current data shows that the pandemic is not over yet.
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