USA TODAY International Edition
Pandemic timelines don’t follow your politics or your feelings
It has been a few days since President Joe Biden said during a primetime interview, “The pandemic is over.” Amid pervasive news of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and a devastating hurricane hitting Puerto Rico, Biden’s statement still has been national news, with outraged doctors and health officials pushing back like never before during this administration.
To be fair, the president said COVID- 19 is still “a problem.” Even so, he pointed to a lack of mask wearing and doubled down a second time, saying, “But the pandemic is over.”
The next day, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was in far from walk- back mode. “The president is right,” he said firmly.
I was shocked. Not by the words but by the people saying them.
This is an administration that said they’d protect the vulnerable and the marginalized and follow the science. Yet it seems they’ve determined none of this is doable or politically practical.
Infection rates are similar now to what they were two years ago. The pandemic wasn’t over then, and it’s not over now.
My concern goes beyond politics. Statements like these, from people such as these, are hurtful and harmful and just plain wrong.
Public health and political harm
More than a million people have died from COVID- 19 in the United States, most of them during the current administration’s tenure. More than 350 people – enough to fill most seats in a typical Boeing 747 jet – are dying each day. Many more have long COVID symptoms, jeopardizing our workforce and the economic recovery the president so badly wants.
For a president who ran on his compassion, it’s a slap in the face to these people and their families to declare the pandemic over, especially while still requiring strangers around him to be vaccinated, and/ or mask and test.
Yet it’s not just emotional harm that’s an issue.
Real public health and political harm comes from the president’s declaration. Transmission rates remain high or substantial in more than 90% of the country, and such statements set a national tone that becomes even more antagonistic to places that determine some mitigation is still warranted.
The majority of the country is not up to date on vaccinations, and the president’s comments undermine efforts to get people vaccinated and boosted.
Then there’s the matter of extending the public health emergency. How does one justify calling something that’s “over” an “emergency”?
Most striking about the president’s statement, as well as Becerra’s endorsement of it, is that according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and every other public health organization, it’s clearly and easily shown to be false.
Coronavirus doesn’t care
A pandemic declaration is predicated on spread of an epidemic. The CDC says an “epidemic” refers to “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”
Only one thing can be true: Either the pandemic isn’t over, or the president and the HHS secretary are trying to reset the baseline for “normal” at 350 largely preventable deaths each day.
It becomes more and more difficult to have rational conversations about COVID policy trade- offs if those in charge of our national response ignore or try to change basic science terminology to suit their preferred framing.
Yet the coronavirus doesn’t care about how we frame the pandemic. It just wants to infect, impair and kill, and it will keep doing so until we actually take measures to suppress it.
Acknowledging the pandemic isn’t over isn’t a show of weakness, and it doesn’t have to be a political liability. We can celebrate progress and use that progress to call for even greater efforts to increase access to boosters, testing, treatments and better ventilation, and expand research on long COVID- 19 and more durable vaccines.
In the long run, our political and economic fortunes are better served by acknowledging that, while we may be over the pandemic, the pandemic isn’t over.
Dr. Jerome Adams, a former U. S. surgeon general, is a distinguished professor and executive director of health equity initiatives at Purdue University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: