Biden’s comments on the pandemic widen the public health divide over how the US should respond to Covid-19

“We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work,” he told reporter Scott Pelley.

“But the pandemic is over,” he repeated.

The timing of the president’s remarks was striking: just two weeks after his administration launched a campaign to urge Americans to get booster shots against the latest strains of Covid-19 at the same time they get their annual flu shot. Health officials have also renewed their efforts to convince Congress to spend an additional $22.4 billion on Covid mitigation efforts.

Biden’s declaration has created another split-screen moment in efforts to bring Covid-19 to heel. Some public health experts worry that political reasons are driving the president’s desire to declare the pandemic over, rather than protecting the public’s health. Others say the president is right and the acute phase of the pandemic is over, although the country continues to face a high disease burden.

More than 400 Americans are dying from Covid-19 every day, a number that hasn’t changed much in three months, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. As of the week of September 9, Covid-19 was the second leading cause of death in the US, according to estimates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

“One week, that’s the Twin Towers, right? It’s 9/11, week after week,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health.

Excess deaths and Covid mortality are still higher in the US, per capita, than in other rich countries. And we’ve had a big drop in life expectancy, he says.

“According to the outstanding epidemiological data, the pandemic is not over,” said Gonsalves.

A confusing problem is that the definition of a pandemic is squishy. In the simplest terms, a pandemic is an epidemic that occurs around the world and affects many people. It is not up to a single person or organization to declare the official start or end.

“I think it’s a term of art,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There’s no criteria or checklist that you go through.”

The World Health Organization recognizes a global health threat as something else: a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC. The US is also declaring a public health emergency.

Covid-19 is still considered a public health emergency, both domestically and globally.

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An administration official told CNN on Monday that Biden’s comments do not signal a change in policy for the administration’s handling of the coronavirus and that there are no plans to lift the public health emergency, which has been in place since January 2020 and is at least now ongoing. until October 13.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has promised to give states 60 days notice before ending the emergency declaration, something it has yet to do.

However, Gonsalves says he was dismayed by the president’s assertion that the pandemic is over, especially in the fall and winter.

“In this country we are incredibly overstimulated and under-vaccinated,” he said. “What message does it send to say ‘pandemic is over’ when you want anyone to get guns, both serial and boosters? And you probably want some money from Congress to do it?”

Biden’s comments are in line with a recent Axios/Ipsos poll showing that most Americans believe there is little risk of a return to their pre-Covid lives. According to the survey, the proportion of people who say they have started their usual activity is at the highest point since the start of the pandemic, at 46%.

“I know the president is getting a lot of criticism. I actually agree with him on that,” said Adalja.

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“For me, it’s about having the tools to get infections on the soft side and not seeing concerns about hospital capacity, and we haven’t seen concerns about hospital capacity in the United States in a long time,” he said.

Adalja says that people who are bashing the president misunderstand what it means to be in a pandemic.

“Just because the president says this is not a pandemic doesn’t mean everything stops,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean everything has to be done directly with funding from Congress.”

The administration has said it plans to stop buying vaccines, tests and treatments, moving those things to the commercial market.

What many public health experts fear is that when the president says the pandemic is over, people hear that Covid-19 is over, which is not the case, said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who directs the Center for Infections. in Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Osterholm fears that the message undermines efforts to encourage people to get vaccinated, to promote access to testing and treatment, and yes, to wear masks in areas of high transmission of Covid-19.

“Why would people want to go get their booster if the pandemic is over?” he asked.

Osterholm says he believes cases, hospitalizations and deaths are still too high to say the pandemic is over. We also don’t know what variants of the virus may arise or how our immunity will withstand them.

“I don’t think people really understand the implications of this virus,” Osterholm said. “We all want the pandemic to end, but you can’t eradicate it by making a political decision.”

CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report.