Is the Pandemic Over?

By now you’ve probably heard that President Biden has declared “the pandemic is over.” Is he correct or is this just another Biden faux pas?

As usual, the White House staff is in full-retraction mode. The official response was that the president was simply expressing what many Americans were already feeling and seeing and what Mr. Biden had been saying all along – that the nation has vaccines and treatments to fight the coronavirus and that for most people, it is not a death sentence. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra echoed the sentiment while getting his booster shot at a community health clinic in New York.

Others were less charitable. Eric Topol, the Scripps Research Translational Institute Director who is one of America’s leading Covid scolds, tweeted “Wish this was true. What’ve over is @POTUS’s and our government’s will to get ahead of it, with magical thinking on new bivalent boosters. Ignores #LongCovid, inevitability of new variants, and our current incapability for blocking infections and transmission.”

“We still have 400 to 500 people dying daily in this country,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University in Atlanta. “If that’s over, it’s a little too high to me.” Anthony Fauci, still the Biden Administration’s top infectious disease expert until his retirement in December, declared, “We are not where we need to be if we’re going to be able to, quote, ‘live with the virus,’ because we know we’re not going to eradicate it. We only did that with one virus, which is smallpox, and that was very different because smallpox doesn’t change from year to year, or decade to decade, or even century to century.”

What none of these experts is saying is that we are transitioning from a pandemic to an endemic. By definition, a pandemic is “an outbreak of a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world.” An endemic is “when an infection in a population is constantly maintained at a baseline level in a geographic area.” The most widely seen endemic is influenza. We have lived with influenza in some form for over a hundred years. Each year the influenza virus makes some changes in its structure, requiring new vaccines to account for these changes. Such is the case now with Covid-19.

The endemic of Covid is certainly not over, as evidenced by the continuing number of deaths and hospitalizations. But such is also the case every year for influenza, which accounts for between 20,000 and 60,000 deaths in an average year. These numbers have declined since the outbreak of Covid-19, probably because of under-reporting of influenza deaths and over-reporting of Covid deaths. Mitigation efforts to prevent the spread of Covid may also have had some beneficial effect on the spread of influenza.

The real question is why President Biden is declaring the Covid pandemic is over, while at the same time declaring the public health emergency is still present. The Wall Street Journal editorial board explains the answer to this question: “The reason is almost certainly money. A March 2020 Covid law enables the government to hand out billions of dollars in welfare benefits to millions of people as long as the emergency is in effect. This includes more generous food stamps and a restriction on state work requirements. It also limits states from removing from their Medicaid rolls individuals who are otherwise no longer financially eligible. The Found for Government accountability estimates these ineligibles cost nearly $16 billion a month.

“Most outrageous, only weeks ago the Administration used a separate national emergency declaration related to the pandemic to legally justify canceling some $500 billion in student debt. An Education Department Office of General Counsel memo says the pandemic and national emergency enable the Education Secretary to modify federal student aid requirements under the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act.”

So, which is it, Mr. President? Is the pandemic – and the public health emergency – over, or not? You can’t have it both ways.