COVID

Biden says ‘the pandemic is over.’ Some local docs disagree.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicates the U.S. is on pace for more than 10,000 COVID-related deaths this month.

In a "60 Minutes" appearance Sunday, President Joe Biden said the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The Associated Press

Appearing on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night, President Joe Biden made a declaration many Americans have long waited to hear: “The pandemic is over.”

“We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. … But the pandemic is over,” Biden said, according to CNN.

Some public health experts beg to differ.

“This is not the moment to say that the pandemic is over,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, a practicing emergency physician and academic dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

“We’re certainly in a better place with COVID than we’ve been in the last couple of years,” she said in an interview, citing better treatments, new boosters targeting the omicron variant, and lower hospitalization rates.

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“But this disease is very much still here with us,” Ranney said. “It’s still killing a lot of folks. It’s still impacting a lot of folks. It’s still causing a lot of long-term disability with long COVID.”

She continued: “As a New Englander, I feel kind of like we’re in the Heartbreak Hill moment of the marathon, where we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve not yet run the course.”

Where do we stand?

In Massachusetts and across the U.S., the COVID-19 burden has been fairly steady for a few months now, according to Dr. Jonathan Levy, chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

However, “steady doesn’t necessarily mean low — it means there’s sort of a sustained level that we’ve had for a while, and there continues to be some health burden, as well as a disruption for a number of people,” Levy said. 

According to its COVID-19 dashboard, Massachusetts saw 7,936 new, confirmed cases in the seven days prior to Sept. 15. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the U.S. is on pace for more than 10,000 COVID-related deaths in September, Levy noted. 

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The virus also continues to disproportionately impact certain populations, including those who are immunocompromised or for whom taking 5-10 days off from work during a bout with COVID-19 would be highly disruptive, Levy said. 

With COVID-19 surges still happening globally, “we’ve not yet met kind of the criteria to say that it’s not a pandemic anymore,” Ranney said, adding that it would also be premature to call COVID-19 endemic like the flu or common cold.

A public health setback

“I think we all want it to be over,” she said. “We’re all tired of this disease; we want it to disappear. … Thanks to the advances of public health, many people are able to act as if COVID is no longer around and a threat.”

COVID continues

Biden’s comments also came as the nation’s public health emergency nears expiration next month. According to The Washington Post, that emergency declaration has allowed federal officials to rapidly authorize new COVID-19 treatments and keep many Americans covered by Medicaid, with an estimated 15.8 million set to lose coverage after the emergency declaration ends. 

“Although things are closer to normal than they’ve been, that messaging is going to set us back,” Ranney said. “Where we are right now is thanks in large part to our treating this as a pandemic — getting vaccines in arms, getting ventilation, getting treatments and testing out to the average person. If we pull back now, we risk it getting much worse.”

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“It’s not like the pandemic is going to end on some fixed day where we can say, ‘Yesterday there was a pandemic; today there is no longer a pandemic,’” Levy added.

Ending the pandemic is a gradual process where the virus becomes more predictable and society finds a way to keep it in check, he explained. 

“I don’t think that we are yet at that level of predictability, nor do I think that deaths of hundreds of thousands per year, many long COVID cases, and lots of disruptions to school and work should be something that we accept as the new normal,” Levy said.

Some factors are beyond human control, including the evolution of new variants, he said. However, vaccinations, treatments, testing, and other public health interventions — including paid sick leave — will help bring the pandemic to an end sooner, according to Levy. 

What can you do?

“The biggest and most important thing that folks can do today is to make sure they are vaccinated and, if eligible, boosted — particularly for folks that are aged 50 plus,” Ranney said. 

She also advised wearing masks in public during surges and advocating for investments in ventilation, testing, and treatment. 

Levy said people should be “sensible” when it comes to wearing masks, testing, and avoiding indoor crowds. 

“Just because people are wanting to move on past COVID doesn’t mean that it is no longer present and in our lives,” he said.

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