Immediately after the 9-18-22 airing of 60 Minutes, criticism poured in assailing President Biden who declared on the taped episode that “That pandemic is over.” The negative comments even came from his friendly press stalwarts such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.
The reactionary messages were mostly the same. The pandemic is NOT over! Cases were still being detected at a rate of 60 thousand a day in the US (at least!). Deaths were still over 400 a day on average! Thirty thousand people are still being hospitalized for COVID! Over three thousand are in ICUs! Vulnerable people were still in danger! We should be masking more! We should be testing more!
All these statements are actually correct. These numbers of cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are too high and in any other circumstances prior to 2020 would be considered catastrophic. This burden of disease uses extraordinary resources and represents extraordinary patient morbidity and mortality with risks for many others. At that current daily rate, almost 150,000 Americans will die this year from COVID, a number that is three times the number of deaths in a bad flu year.
Regardless of these arguments, differing viewpoints even in some of the same publications were seen after the President’s statements. Arguments were made that the pandemic was becoming more “endemic” and the President could be right potentially after all. An understanding by all that life was reverting to normal supported this contention.
But analyzing semantics does not give us insight into the real problem with the President’s statement.
The President is technically entitled to free speech like any other citizen. However, the words of any sitting U.S. president, intelligently crafted or not, carry much greater weight than virtually anyone else in the country, possibly the world. They suggest the policy of the United States government, they are scrutinized by other world leaders, and they are believed, sometimes verbatim, by normal, everyday Americans.
The President suddenly made the job harder for every doctor telling his patients this fall to get vaccinated or get their boosters. He made it more difficult for everyone not feeling quite right to get a COVID test, use a mask, or stay home for a while. He told vulnerable people that they were in the clear and they needn’t use any precautions. This occurred at a time when one-third of individuals feel nervous about going back to the office due to the risks of catching COVID.
Whether or not you believe that the pandemic is over, COVID certainly is not. Despite intrinsic complexity within any location and cluster of individuals, full health and safety in public spaces such as businesses, schools, and events need to be maintained. Attention to local COVID rates and the quantifiable risk present for each individual within a group will provide guidance into what precautions are necessary for each organization. Over time, different safety protocols of varying degrees of scrutiny may be needed to combat different phases of an ever-changing set of variants and contagions.
COVID is still here whether we believe we are living in a “pandemic” or an “endemic.” Minimizing its damage should still be a consideration for everyone but especially those responsible for the safety and health of others.