Biden declares the COVID-19 pandemic over as experts keep wary eye on potential fall surge

President Joe Biden on Sunday night delivered the news so many have been waiting more than two and a half years to hear.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, he announced an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic is over,” the President said, although he added that “we still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it ... 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.”

Biden’s declaration caught some of his own medical experts by surprise according to Politico. Other experts and current case data indicate that perhaps the “out of the woods” metaphor might not be as good a fit as the “wave” metaphor when talking about COVID-19. It’s something the country will probably have to deal with every year, the way it deals with influenza.

But there’s a difference, Linda Spaulding, an infection prevention consultant, tells Fierce Healthcare. “It’s more dangerous than the flu. I just don’t like the comparison with the flu. It still causes more deaths than the flu does, but at least more people are vaccinated.”

According to data from the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center last Friday, the average daily death count from COVID-19 for the prior seven days in the United States stood at 447, and there were 69,982 new cases of the disease reported over the same period. About 224.4 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or 68% of the country. The seven-day average of people being vaccinated over that time was 96,278.

The 69,982 new cases of COVID-19 that the U.S. recorded puts it fifth on the list in that category, behind Japan (89,502), South Korea (57,130), Russia (9,550) and Taiwan (37,052).

“My concern is that people will say it’s just like the flu and stop getting vaccinated in which case numbers will start going up again,” says Spaulding. “We’ll just have to see if people will still get vaccinated every year or twice a year, whatever they decide. They’ve already said that people who are immunocompromised or elderly will still have to be vaccinated twice a year.”

Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told CNBC in July that “even if this settles into a seasonal pattern, it’s going to meet the definition of a pandemic. I think the reality is that most people see the pandemic as a reality of modern life rather than as a health emergency.”

A pandemic is a contagious disease that spreads over a wide area. When SARS-CoV-2 first emerged and appeared to be contained to the area around the city Wuhan, in China, it had been described as an epidemic. When it crossed national and then continental borders, it became a pandemic.

Deborah Birx, M.D., who served in the Trump administration as the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, last Wednesday addressed a conference hosted by the consumer advocacy organization Health Watch USA. She warned of COVID-19 surges coming in the fall (which officially arrives this Thursday).

“This was just last week,” she said of a slide showing where COVID seems to be surging. “I call your attention to Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Northern Alabama, and Mississippi, and Northern Louisiana. You can see the surges. There’s a high potential for community spread. And this is just after schools have started.”

Nonetheless, Birx said, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the battle against COVID. “We have 21st century tools and knowledge to keep every American safe from hospitalization and death,” Birx said.

Those include vaccination and testing, although she cautioned that that’s not enough to protect vulnerable family members. Other measures include proactive testing through surges and immediate administration of Paxlovid if the individual is at-risk for significant disease. She also urged the use of N95 masks for at-risk individuals and maintaining proper airflow in buildings.