This week, President Biden said what millions of Americans have been hoping to hear since the spring of 2020: “The pandemic is over.”
I understand the impulse to close the book and move on. But I am deeply concerned that this declaration is not only premature but also dangerous.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has shown us, again and again, the danger of hubris. Think of the lethal impact of the omicron virus last winter, just when we were so grateful that the delta wave had ebbed. Think of the deadly surges this summer, just when we were planning our long-delayed vacations. This is a virus that has humbled us too often. We must approach it with humility.
This declaration has many damaging effects: As others have noted, it will now be even harder to persuade Americans to get the new bivalent boosters. It’ll be tougher to persuade Congress to fund essential COVID responses. And it will be nearly impossible for local officials to impose new indoor mask requirements should another surge arrive.
To be sure, Biden did acknowledge in his “60 Minutes” interview that “we still have a problem with COVID” and added that “we’re still doing a lot of work on it.” But he sandwiched that message between two flat declarations that the pandemic is over. Those are the soundbites that have reverberated most loudly, and they are decidedly unhelpful.
Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has spoken often about how the U.S. has lurched from a cycle of panic to neglect when it comes to public health. Many of us in the field had hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic would break that cycle — a sliver of silver lining amid all the grief.
We had hoped that policymakers and voters alike would understand how essential it is to upgrade our data infrastructure, stockpile essential medicine and equipment, invest in preventive care for vulnerable populations, restructure our emergency response agencies and support an infusion of public health workers at the local and state levels. Surely, COVID would be the spur needed to finally bump U.S. spending on public health to more than 3 cents on the health care dollar.
By declaring the pandemic over when we are still very much in the thick of the fight, President Biden is undercutting that message.
Let’s look at where we are right now. The U.S. is still reporting close to 60,000 cases and 400 deaths each week. Millions are struggling with long COVID; by some estimates, this often debilitating condition is keeping 4 million adults out of work. Those at work may have less flexibility: Major companies are ending work-from-home policies and Starbucks announced this week that it will no longer give employees paid time off to isolate or get vaccinated. Biden’s remarks will only accelerate that trend.
Meanwhile, only 67 percent of Americans are vaccinated and only half of them have been boosted. While many of the remaining have some immunity from infection, the death toll makes clear that large swaths of the population remain highly vulnerable. And of course, new variants continue to emerge; right now, all eyes are on BA.2.75.2, a mutation of the omicron variant that is notably better at evading antibodies acquired from vaccination or prior infection and is spreading rapidly in India.
Declaring the pandemic over at this stage is tantamount to accepting all this misery as background noise.
And if we accept the status quo as background noise — rather than the urgent and immediate threat it represents — it’s nearly impossible to make the case that we need to do more as a society to protect the vulnerable, respond to surges, or prepare for future crises.
The Biden administration has made significant strides on COVID. It made tests, vaccines and treatments widely available across the country, which improved outcomes and saved lives. The vast majority of Americans feel we’re in a better place than at this time last year and many have returned, at least in large part, to normal activities.
It is an appropriate moment for our leaders to turn the page away from our wartime footing and begin a sober discussion about the next steps: the risks that remain, the importance of responding quickly to local surges, the value of supporting the Global South in building their own vaccine infrastructure — and the critical need to rebuild the battered and woefully outdated public health infrastructure in the U.S.
It is not the moment to declare victory.
John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” has a stark warning from history. He writes that the world had largely moved on from the 1918 influenza pandemic when a fourth wave struck in 1920. By then, the U.S. had plenty of natural immunity from prior infection. Still, the virus spread ruthlessly. Public officials failed to respond. They, like the public, wanted the pandemic to be over — so the virus rolled on unchecked. In some cities, the death toll in 1920 exceeded the toll of the huge second wave.
We should not make the same mistake now. With humility as our watchword, we can move to the next chapter without closing the book. That is the way forward.
Michelle A. Williams is dean of the faculty of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.