Biden says the COVID pandemic 'over.' Could that put some emergency aid programs at risk?

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s seemingly offhand declaration that the COVID-19 pandemic “is over” could complicate several issues for the administration.

Officials are encouraging people to get boosted ahead of a possible fall and winter wave of infections. They’ve asked Congress for $22.4 billion in emergency coronavirus funding. The administration had been expected to renew a public health emergency, which is keeping millions of Americans on Medicaid. And Biden’s controversial decision to wipe out student loan debt for millions of Americans rests on the Education Department’s ability to ease hardship in a national emergency.

White House officials have not commented publicly on Biden's remark since it aired Sunday on CBS.

The latest

  • What Biden said: In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes," Biden was asked whether the pandemic is over. He said it is, though he added, “We still have a problem with COVID.”
  • COVID-19 casualties: Nearly 3,000 Americans are still dying from COVID-19 each week.
  • What the World Health Organization said: At a news briefing last week, the head of the global agency said more needs to be done until the pandemic is “truly over.”
  • What the White House has said before: On Sept. 6, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said: “The pandemic isn’t over.”
President Joe Biden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 27 after recovering from COVID-19.

What’s about to happen

Congress is deciding whether to approve billions of dollars of additional coronavirus funding requested by Biden. Republicans have insisted that unspent money from a previous COVID-19 package be repurposed. The administration has said the money is needed to prepare for future surges.

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Ahead of a possible surge of infections this fall and winter, the administration is encouraging people to get booster shots targeting the original virus and the most recent variants, called BA.4 and BA.5, which now dominate the U.S. and the world. If the uptake is similar to the rate at which the public gets vaccinated for the flu, an estimated 100,000 hospitalizations could be prevented, according to the administration.

Sarah Lovenheim, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, tweeted Monday that the COVID-19 public health emergency remains in effect. She said the administration will "continue to lean on the science" to decide when it should end and will give states 60 days notice. 

Top takeaways

Biden’s comment, which is at odds with the data and with what his COVID-19 coordinator said earlier this month, appears to reflect not a change in policy but an unartful way of saying the worst of the pandemic is over.

Still, some public health experts said his comment is dangerous and problematic. And Republicans jumped on it to declare that it means student loan debt shouldn’t be forgiven, the public health emergency shouldn't be extended, and vaccinations shouldn’t be required.

What they are saying

  • “The pandemic is over,” Biden told “60 Minutes." “We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. It's – 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.”
  • “I understand what he was trying to say but such rhetoric is hurtful, dangerous, and scientifically untrue,” tweeted Dr. Jerome Adams, who was President Donald Trump’s surgeon general.
  • “Heck no. With all due respect, @JoeBiden — you’re wrong. Pandemic is not over. Almost 3,000 Americans are dying from #COVID19 every single week,” tweeted Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding,  an epidemiologist and co-founder of the World Health Network.
  • “We are not there yet, but the end is in sight,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Sept. 14.
  • “Biden admitted last night that the COVID pandemic is over. In other words, there is no ‘ongoing emergency’ to justify his proposal for student loan handouts,” tweeted Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

Is the pandemic really 'over'?

Public health experts say the country is in a much better place than it was a year ago, but they’re not willing to declare victory just yet.

“It’s way too early to say the pandemic is over,” said Dr. Philip Chan, an infectious disease specialist and an associate professor at Brown University. “If we let our guard down, it’s going to come back to bite us.”

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The U.S. is still reporting a high level of COVID-19 death and suboptimal vaccine uptake, experts say, as the country approaches another expected winter surge. Johns Hopkins University data shows more than 13,000 deaths and 2.1 million cases were reported in the past month, which experts say may be an undercount as many infections go unreported with home testing.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 34% of eligible Americans got their second original COVID-19 booster, which experts say doesn’t suggest much hope for the new omicron-specific booster.

“There’s still close to 500 people (a day) dying of a vaccine preventable disease, and we still do not have the vaccine uptake that we’d like to see,” said Jodie Guest, professor and vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “I don’t find that to be a level where I’m willing to say (the pandemic) is over.”

By definition, a pandemic is an outbreak of disease in multiple countries around the world, Chan said, and some countries are still reporting high levels of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

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