Nation/World

Biden’s statement in an interview that ‘pandemic is over’ complicates his COVID strategy

Joe Biden

President Joe Biden’s surprise declaration that the coronavirus pandemic is “over” has thrown a wrench into the White House’s efforts to secure additional funding to fight the virus and persuade Americans to get a new booster shot, while fueling more Republican criticism about why the administration continues to extend a COVID “emergency.”

Biden’s comments, which aired Sunday on “60 Minutes,” reflect growing public sentiment that the threat of the virus has receded even as hundreds of Americans continue to die of COVID each day. Forty-six percent of Americans have returned to their pre-pandemic lives, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll released last week, the highest share of respondents to answer that way since the pollsters began asking the question in January 2021.

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

Biden’s remarks caught some senior officials off guard as the White House mounts a fall vaccination campaign, lobbies Congress for billions of dollars to purchase more coronavirus vaccines and treatments, and weighs whether to extend its ongoing public health emergency when it expires next month. The president’s comments also triggered a sell-off on Wall Street, as vaccine manufacturers Moderna, Novavax, BioNTech and Pfizer collectively lost more than $9 billion in value on Monday.

In interviews, six administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment said the president’s statement would probably make it harder to persuade people to get shots or secure new money from Congress, noting those efforts have already lagged behind their goals.

Some officials on Monday sought to add nuance to Biden’s comments, seeking to praise the nation’s progress while acknowledging the ongoing challenges. More than 30,000 people remain hospitalized with COVID and more than 400 are still dying each day, according to seven-day averages compiled by The Washington Post.

“Although we are much better off than we were months ago, as the president himself said, we still have a lot of work to do to get it down to a low enough level that we would feel comfortable with it,” Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said in an interview. “I’m not comfortable with 400 deaths per day.”

Sarah Lovenheim, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, reiterated that the public health emergency “remains in effect” and said the agency would provide a 60-day notice before ending it.

[Worldwide COVID deaths at lowest since March 2020, says UN health agency]

The administration for months has maintained that the virus is in retreat, citing the growing availability of vaccines, tests and treatments and the population’s expanding immunity. The White House also has begun transitioning some of its purchases of coronavirus tests and treatments to private insurers, with a goal of shifting the cost of vaccines to patients by the middle of next year.

Biden’s remarks came at a moment when new daily infections are down to just over 57,000 - the lowest they have been since late April - although that is probably a dramatic undercount since most people test themselves at home and do not report their infections to local and state health officials.

Congressional Republicans on Monday cited Biden’s comments as a reason not to support additional funding or other urgent steps to fight the virus. Staff for Sen. Mitt Romney, who worked with the White House earlier this year to try to reach a deal on more coronavirus funding, said the Utah Republican now thinks the administration has sufficient funds.

Republicans also questioned why the administration would renew the public health emergency if the pandemic is over. That declaration has been used to streamline authorization of coronavirus vaccines and treatments and keep many Americans covered by Medicaid, the safety-net health program. The Urban Institute, a think tank that conducts economic and social policy research, has estimated that as many as 15.8 million Americans could lose Medicaid coverage after the government ends the declaration.

“Since President Biden used his appearance on 60 Minutes to declare COVID is over, he must immediately terminate the COVID-19 national emergency declaration and wind down other emergency authorities that his Administration continues to force us to live under,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said in a statement. “The American people are fatigued and yearning to operate outside of the confines of supersized government.”

Biden also invoked the COVID emergency last month to forgive student loan debt, citing a federal law that allows student loan rules to be modified during a crisis. But the student loan plan is already facing challenges, and Republicans said that the president’s remarks undercut his argument.

“In other words, there is no ‘ongoing emergency’ to justify his proposal for student loan handouts,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) wrote on Twitter.

Biden made his remarks to CBS News reporter Scott Pelley last week during an interview at the auto show in Detroit, referencing the crowds at the event. The annual auto show had not been held since 2019.

“If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” the president said. “Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it.”

J. Stephen Morrison, director of global health policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Biden was seeking to reassure virus-weary Americans, about 50 days before the midterm elections.

“It’s a campaign message,” Morrison said. “It’s pretty consistent with a lot of the other messaging around the normalization of life . . . he’s saying the pandemic is over psychologically and behaviorally.”

Many Americans remain wary of the virus, said Liz Hamel of Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, citing its July polling that found 39 percent of adults were still worried about serious illness, and 44 percent of parents were worried about a child becoming seriously ill.

“I don’t think we can say Americans have moved on from this completely,” Hamel said.

William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that COVID’s impact remains “remarkable,” particularly when compared to other respiratory viruses. In an email, he noted that COVID has been linked to the deaths of about 80,000 Americans this summer - tens of thousands more than during the typical flu season.

“It is true that we have far fewer severe (COVID) infections, deaths and health-care utilization than in the past. It is also true that these numbers only look small because of what we have gotten used to,” Hanage added, warning that cases could surge this winter.

The head of the World Health Organization last week warned that the pandemic was not over and that important work remains to combat it around the world.

“We are not there yet but the end is in sight,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO. “We can see the finish line. but now is the worst time to stop running.”

In the “60 Minutes” interview, Biden said the pandemic continues to exact a deep psychological toll. “Think of how that has changed everything,” the president said. " . . . people’s attitudes about themselves, their families, about the state of the nation, about the state of their communities.”

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The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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