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President Biden’s statement that “the pandemic is over” could complicate the administration’s efforts to combat COVID-19, public health experts say.
Biden made the remarks on a Sunday broadcast of 60 minutes. “We still have a problem with COVID. We are still working on it a lot. But the pandemic is over,” he said. “If you notice, no one is wearing a mask. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think that’s changing.”
The president’s comments come as public health officials try to convince Americans to get another booster shot, and the White House has worked unsuccessfully for months to convince Congress to provide more than $22 billion. new funding for the COVID-19 response. Since Sunday night, Republicans have already used his words to question the vaccination mandates that are still in place for the national military and other federally funded programs.
At the same time, nearly 400 Americans are dying from COVID every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several public health experts called Biden’s remarks “unfortunate.”
“When the President of the United States says the pandemic is over, why would people line up for their boosters? Why would Congress allocate additional funds for these other strategies and tools?” said Dr. Celine Gounder, epidemiologist and senior researcher at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “I’m deeply disappointed. I think it’s a real lack of leadership.”
The remarks could cause political difficulties
The White House is currently fighting an uphill battle in Congress to secure $22.4 billion in emergency funding for COVID-19 to support vaccinations, testing and further research. Some Republican support is needed in the Senate to secure the funding, which the administration has been seeking since the spring. It’s been hard to find because some GOP lawmakers say there’s unspent money left over from past COVID-19 funding measures that can be used.
In announcing the funding request earlier this month, an official told reporters on a conference call that there was not currently “enough funding to handle a surge in the fall.” administration has already stopped the program of sending free test kits to Americans due to lack of funds.
The president’s words could undermine efforts to get that money further.
Republicans are already using the statement to question the rationale for ongoing pandemic measures, including the military vaccine requirement and mandates for vaccines and masks in federally funded Head Start education programs.
“Biden admitted last night that the COVID pandemic is over. In other words, there is no ‘permanent urgency’ to justify his student loan proposal,” he added. said Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
Some public health experts agreed with Biden’s characterization of a “shift” in the pandemic. “It’s a sensible thing to do as we collectively move away from this emergency stance we’ve been on for two years and try to navigate a new normal,” said Department of Health Chair Dr. Bob Wachter. ‘UCSF. Medicine. “It’s an appropriate way to think about the threat as it presents itself today.”
Acknowledging the change should not stand in the way of funds for COVID-related efforts, said Dr. Tom Frieden, who led the CDC during the Obama administration.
“We don’t have pandemic Alzheimer’s disease, flu, or heart disease. But Congress still needs to fund programs to address those issues,” he said.
Ongoing recall campaign may face challenges
Public health officials in the Biden administration have at times struggled to present a clear, unified message on COVID-19. His administration has sometimes been criticized for a lack of communication Where issue guidance that appears to contradict available data.
Now the president’s remarks have thrown another wrench into the mix at a crucial time.
The administration just rolled out a new bivalent booster shot designed to target the omicron subvariants that have dominated the country’s case count in recent months, and the agency is working to convince Americans to get out and to get it. (Since the CDC recommended the vaccine earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of Americans have received it.)
But health officials have long struggled to convince Americans to get vaccinated. Only 68% of Americans have completed their initial vaccination courseand less than half of them received a booster injection.
Most troubling is the recall rate for people over 65, said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of Brown University’s Pandemic Center. CDC data shows that while the vast majority of older Americans received the original shots, far fewer — only about a quarter — also took the original two boosters.
“If we do nothing else to reduce the number of deaths from COVID, we must ensure that the people who are at the greatest risk of serious illness and death – and these are people over 65 – receive their reminder,” says Nuzzo. “I don’t want to inadvertently send a signal that it’s not something they need to do anymore.”
She and other public health experts pointed to winter, when a surge of new cases is likely, as the cold pushes socializing indoors and the holidays prompt people to travel to visit family and to their friends. A winter surge of cases will require testing, vaccines and other efforts to combat COVID, they said.
“I would say, let’s not declare the end of the pandemic,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University. “Let’s say we are in a very good position and we have to keep working hard to stay in this good position.”
NPR’s Arnie Seipel contributed reporting.