WASHINGTON — They were the four words that caused a national furor, four words that addressed an issue of intense contention with immense political stakes.
"The pandemic is over," President Biden told 60 Minutes in an interview on Sunday, as he walked the otherwise empty floor of the Detroit Auto Show with interviewer Scott Pelley. Neither wore a mask, or kept the kind of distance that public health officials once mandated to keep the virus from spreading.
The president pointed out that “we still have a problem with Covid,” but he also conceded to the reality he had witnessed at the convention. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” Biden told Pelley. “Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.”
Some in the White House believe that Biden’s statement was far from the controversial declaration of victory described – and lamented – in some media reports. “This is a fundamentally different moment in our fight against COVID. We can acknowledge that, and we should,” a White House official told Yahoo News, requesting anonymity in order to speak frankly about the situation.
To be sure, many public health professionals disagree, pointing to the more than 400 people who continue to die daily from COVID-19. Then there are the millions who have immunocompromising conditions like cancer, who do not have the luxury of treating the coronavirus as a minor threat on par with the common cold.
“I’m not comfortable with 400 deaths per day,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, told The Washington Post.
For some, Biden had done nothing more than acknowledge obvious reality. "The president is correct," U.S. Health Sec. Xavier Becerra said in a Monday afternoon interview with Yahoo News. Other senior administration officials may not be as blunt in defending Biden's remark, but Becerra's views are hardly seen as controversial within the White House – or, for that matter, by many Americans.
“I think the president was reflecting what so many Americans are thinking and feeling," Becerra added.
Bars and restaurants are packed in major cities across the United States. From crowded football stadiums to full flights, society is rife with indications that most Americans have moved on from the emergency phase of the coronavirus. Offices, however slowly, are coming to life. Schools have relegated remote learning to the past.
"When Biden stated 'the pandemic is over,' he didn't mean that COVID is over. It's not. He knows we have more work to do," Dr. Lucy McBride, a Washington, D.C., physician who has long urged an end to pandemic restrictions, told Yahoo News in an email. "What he did was appropriately signal the end of the emergency state of the pandemic and remind us that health is about more than the absence of COVID."
The availability of home rapid tests means that there are many more daily coronavirus cases than what public health statistics can capture. At the same time, those same statistics could be conflating hospitalization (and death) from the coronavirus with hospitalization for some other cause that also reveals a positive coronavirus test.
"We should classify COVID hospitalizations and deaths accurately at this point," University of California at San Francisco infectious disease specialist Dr. Monica Gandhi told Yahoo News in an email. "Many with COVID in the hospital at this point are asymptomatic or swab positive without being sick."
As has frequently been the case in recent months, the White House's own thinking was best reflected by Dr. Leana Wen, who has emerged as one of the nation's most prominent (and controversial) opponents of pandemic restrictions. In her Washington Post column following the brouhaha over Biden's "60 Minutes" interview, Wen echoed what many White House officials, including the president, have been saying for months: that with vaccines and therapeutics universally available, normal life can resume.
"By multiple definitions, the pandemic is over," Wen wrote. "That doesn't mean that the coronavirus is no longer causing harm; it simply signals the end of an emergency state as covid has evolved into an endemic disease."
In fact, Fauci himself had made the very same point, arguing in an April interview that the United States was "out of the pandemic phase." He quickly walked the statement back, only to predict in August that the coronavirus would settle into an endemic state by December.
The president himself experienced COVID-19 in late July, but didn't seem to experience any of the serious symptoms associated with the disease, thanks in part to the fact that he was fully vaccinated and received treatment with Paxlovid, a pill that is exceptionally effective at staving off serious illness.
The White House used his relative lack of symptoms as a kind of lesson in how far COVID-19 care had advanced. "It's not a fever. It is not a massive headache. It is a runny nose and a dry throat – which many who do not test positive for COVID have," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a White House briefing at the time as she fended off questions about whether the president had not been cautious enough.
Several days after Biden left isolation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an easing of guidelines related to quarantine and masking. A top CDC official said that the nation was approaching the moment when the coronavirus "no longer severely disrupts our daily lives."
That moment arguably came closer with the announcement of a bivalent coronavirus vaccine now available across the United States. The updated vaccine is meant specifically to address the BA.5 and BA.4 strains of the Omicron variant, which White House officials believe will remain – with potential minor variations to its genetic code – prevalent in the United States in the months to come.
While it was not exactly a concession that the pandemic was over, the advent of variant-specific boosters seemed to suggest a new, more manageable stage of pandemic response."For a large majority of Americans, we are moving to a point where a single annual COVID shot should provide a high degree of protection against serious illness all year," White House pandemic response team coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said when the bivalent boosters were authorized earlier this month.
There is no hard-and-fast definition of when a pandemic subsides and a virus attains what is known as endemicity, meaning it circulates regularly through society, much as influenza has done for decades. But even the World Health Organization – which made the pandemic designation in the first place – appears to be suggesting that the endemic stage is on the horizon.
"We are not there yet," WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week. "But the end is in sight."
The White House has previously shown frustration at media coverage of the pandemic that seems informed by the public health discourse on Twitter as opposed to the everyday reality experienced by millions. Polling has shown the coronavirus receding as a national concern, yet for some pro-caution advocates, merely conceding that 2022 does not resemble 2020 is a Trumpian abdication to magical thinking.
"The country is open again – people are back to work and kids are in school – tests, treatments, and vaccines are widely available," the White House official told Yahoo News, "and Americans are protected in a way they weren't previously with this new updated vaccine that for the first time matches the dominant variant."
The official urged Americans to get their boosters.