'Wish this was true': Physicians react to declaration that pandemic is over

A declaration from the White House that the COVID-19 pandemic is over is not sitting well with physicians, who say the nation's current death rate and high transmission signal otherwise. 

President Joe Biden during a CBS News 60 Minutes interview on Sept. 18 said COVID-19's pandemic era is over.

"The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it," he said. "But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one's wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it's changing." 

Not long after the CBS interview aired, #COVIDIsNotOver began trending on Twitter, with many physicians echoing that message. 

"Is the pandemic DIFFERENT? Sure," Megan Ranney, MD, emergency physician and academic dean of Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., wrote in a tweet. "We have vaccines and infection-induced immunity. We have treatments. We have tests (while they last). The fatality rate is way down. And so we respond to it differently. But over?! With 400 deaths a day?! I call malarkey." 

The nation's current death rate is a core focus of physicians' concern with the president's statement. About 400 Americans are dying each day from COVID-19, according to HHS data compiled by The New York Times. While that's down from an average of nearly 2,000 per day during delta's peak, it's far too many to claim a 'pandemic over' victory, physicians and other health experts say. 

"Heck no. With all due respect, [President Joe Biden] — you're wrong. Pandemic is not over. Almost 3,000 Americans are dying from #COVID19 every single week," Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, an epidemiologist and former faculty member at Boston-based Harvard Medical School, tweeted. "A weekly 9/11 is a very big deal. Don't even get me started on #LongCOVID — wreaking havoc on millions more." 

Under current circumstances, declaring the pandemic over would mean accepting 400 deaths per day as the new "baseline normal,"  Jerome Adams, MD, tweeted. "A pandemic occurs when an epidemic has spread globally. And according to [CDC], an epidemic is an increase in cases over what is normally expected. So if the pandemic is over, ipso facto 400 COVID deaths a day is our new baseline 'normal,'" he said. 

High transmission and the "inevitability of new variants" also are in conflict with the declaration, according to Eric Topol, MD, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

"Wish this was true," Dr. Topol said in a tweet, citing a clip of the president's interview. "What's over is … our government's will to get ahead of it, with magical thinking on the new bivalent boosters. Ignores #LongCovid, inevitability of new variants, and our current incapability of blocking infections and transmission," Dr. Topol said. In the same thread, he also cited the current death rate and data showing low booster uptake in the U.S., writing, "A proclamation 'it's over' is not going to help that." 

U.S. health officials are betting on omicron-targeting booster doses to help stave off infection and severe illness as the fall and winter months approach, though some experts are worried the updated shots may not live up to their potential, given low uptake of previous boosters. 

The president's remarks follow the World Health Organization's signaling of the pandemic's wind-down last week. During a Sept. 14 press briefing, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said, "We are not there yet, but the end is in sight," urging global health authorities to make the most of the progress and continue mitigation efforts. 

"We are in a winning position, but now is the worst time to stop running," Dr. Tedros said. "Now is the time to run harder and make sure we cross the line and reap the rewards of all our hard work." 

 

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