President Biden announced that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Medical experts responded with evidence that this is not the case. Even the White House later announced that nothing has changed about the pandemic and that all precautions necessary to suppress the spread of the virus and its impact on the population remain intact and appropriate.
Anytime the president of the United States speaks, people listen. His voice gets amplified and interpreted often far beyond what he meant to convey. This is the price that one pays when you occupy the Oval Office.
What is more important than the president announcing that the pandemic is over, is the actual status of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 confirmed case count is around 50,000 per day, with a steady downward trend over the past two months. The number of unconfirmed cases is likely several times higher, due to people resorting to at-home tests, or just not bothering to test. This means that community transmission continues to be high, likely exceeding the levels seen with the delta variant.
New COVID-19 hospital admissions are also on a downward trend over the past two months. People over 70 years old continue to bear the brunt of the most severe outcomes of the virus and dominate new hospital admissions. The vaccines and boosters available have played a critical role in reducing such admissions.
COVID-19 deaths have also moderated, although 350 to 400 deaths per day appears to be the norm. Once again, the vaccines have played a critical role in keeping these numbers down.
With so much community transmission, the virus continues to mutate. The once dominant delta variant is far in the rearview mirror. The omicron variant is now dominant, with subvariant BA.5 leading the pack over the past two months. This appears to be changing, as subvariant BA.4.6 is flexing its transmission muscles and will likely become the new dominant circulating variant within the next six weeks. This creates a new set of risks, as each variant and subvariant has its own unique characteristics and clinical effects.
The new bivalent COVID-19 vaccine was recently launched with somewhat muted fanfare. Many people are vaccine fatigued, as evidenced by the slowing uptake of boosters in the eligible populations. How well this new vaccine is received remains uncertain.
What all this data suggest is that anyone believing that the pandemic is over has not read the epidemiological tea leaves.
Biden’s announcement can best be interpreted as premature. It may even be wishful thinking on his part, especially as the nation is fast approaching the midterm elections with the battle for control of Congress up for grabs.
Indeed, Biden’s statement reflects how most of the population is behaving. For many, COVID-19 is nothing more than a bad cold. And for most, its short-term symptoms appear that way.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) updated COVID-19 policies give every person the freedom to choose for themselves how to behave amidst the virus. Everyone must decide how much risk they wish to assume and what actions to take to mitigate their personal risk. Of course, if a person does not feel they have any personal risk, then no precautions are necessary. This appears to be the case for the majority of the population.
What is most revealing is that the people who are most knowledgeable about medicine and public health are the very people who continue to express concern about COVID-19 and its impact on the population. Conversely, those who most lack the training and expertise to make such evaluations are treating COVID-19 like a minor inconvenience, possibly to be avoided, but certainly nothing to fret over.
Sorry Mr. President, you are closer to the second group than the first. Given how his health advisers were caught off guard by the statement, this provides ample evidence of this fact. As such, let’s treat his comments with the appropriate level of credibility that they deserve, and the views of his health advisers as the true status of the pandemic.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.