Why Biden’s early COVID end could help it surge

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 statement is not only premature but also dangerous.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has repeatedly reminded us of the danger of hubris. Think of the deadly effect of the omicron virus last winter, just as we were so thankful that the delta wave had subsided. Think about the deadly surges this summer just as we were planning our long-delayed vacation. This is a virus that has humiliated us too many times. We must approach it with humility.

This declaration has many pernicious implications: As others have noted, convincing Americans to get the new bivalent boosters is now becoming even harder. Convincing Congress to fund major COVID responses will be more difficult. And it will be nearly impossible for local officials to impose new indoor mask requirements should a further spike occur.

Certainly, in his 60 Minutes interview, Biden acknowledged that “we still have a problem with COVID” and added that “we still have a lot of work to do on it.” But he inserted that message between two shallow declarations that the pandemic is over. Those are the soundbites that resonated the loudest, and they’re decidedly unhelpful.

dr Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has often spoken about how the US has slipped from a cycle of panic to neglect when it comes to public health. Many of us locally had hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic would break that cycle—a silver lining amidst all the grief.

We had hoped that policymakers and voters alike would understand the importance of improving our data infrastructure, stockpiling essential medicines and equipment, investing in preparedness for vulnerable populations, restructuring our emergency organizations, and an infusion of public health workers local support and provincial level. Certainly, COVID would be the spur needed to finally push US public health spending past 3 cents of the healthcare dollar.

By declaring the pandemic over while we are still in the thick of the fight, President Biden undermines that message.

Let’s look at where we are right now. The US is still reporting nearly 60,000 cases and 400 deaths a week. Millions Struggling With Long COVID; It is estimated that this often debilitating condition keeps 4 million adults unemployed. Those who work may have less flexibility: Big 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 comments will only accelerate this trend.

Now, only 67 percent of Americans are vaccinated, and only half of them have been boosted. While many of those who remain have some immunity to infection, the death toll makes it clear that large sections of the population remain highly vulnerable. And of course new variants keep popping up; all eyes are currently on BA.2.75.2, an omicron variant mutation that is significantly better at evading antibodies from vaccinations or previous infections 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 imminent threat it poses — it’s almost impossible to argue that we, as a society, need to do more to protect the vulnerable, respond to surges, or to prepare for future crises.

The Biden administration has made significant strides on COVID. It made testing, vaccines and treatments widely available across the country, improving outcomes and saving lives. The vast majority of Americans feel like we’re in a better place than we were this time last year, and many have returned to normal activities, at least for the most part.

It is an opportune moment for our leaders to turn the page from our wartime and begin a sober discussion of the next steps: the remaining risks, the importance of responding quickly to local surges, the value of helping the Global South build their own Vaccine infrastructure – and the critical need to rebuild America’s battered and woefully outdated public health infrastructure

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 was largely behind the 1918 flu pandemic when a fourth wave struck in 1920. At this point, the US had adequate natural immunity to previous infections. Despite this, the virus spread recklessly. Officials didn’t respond. They, like the public, wanted the pandemic to be over – so the virus spread unchecked. In some cities, the death toll in 1920 exceeded the death toll of the great second wave.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake now. With humility as a watchword, we can move on to the next chapter without closing the book. This is the way forward.

Michelle A. Williams is Dean of the Faculty at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

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