What Biden really meant when he said the pandemic was “over”

Over the weekend, President Joe Biden told the nation that the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rearview mirror. “The pandemic is over,” he said in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lotta work on it. . . . But the pandemic is over.”

The statement was simultaneously controversial in public health circles and, in a sense, just stating the obvious. To millions of Americans, the pandemic—or at least what we think of when we hear the word “pandemic,” with unpredictable and ever-spiking death tolls and hospitalizations, lockdowns, mask requirements, and other extraordinary measures—has been “over” for months.

Ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft lifted mandatory masking requirements for riders and drivers back in Aprila.s there Amtrak and major airlines. New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the tumultuous and anxious early months of 2020 and key bastion of early, aggressive public safety measures, ended mask requirements on the subway, buses, and mass transit on September 7. Major employers had pushed for much of the year to have workers return to the office by Labor Day weekend, and hospitalizations and deaths from coronavirus have declined and stabilized at a more predictable clip over the course of 2022, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

But if you consider the classical definition of a “pandemic,” Biden’s meaning becomes more clear—and was expounded on by outgoing NIAID director and national COVID-19 adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci himself several days following the president’s comments. A pandemic is “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries, and usually affecting a large number of people,” according to the Dictionary of Epidemiology.

That may sound like what is still happening with COVID-19—after all, there are still some 350 people dying from the virus per day in the United States alone, and more than 1,600 average daily deaths worldwide. But those still-tragic figures are far more in line with an infectious disease that has become endemic and thus, a bit more stable and predictable. It’s a distinction that may spell the difference between, say, a new virus—that lacks available treatments and vaccines—wreaking havoc and a pathogenic foe that’s been around long enough that we have a better understanding of its dangers and how to fight them.

“He was saying we’re in a much better place with regard to the ‘fulminant stage’ of the pandemic,” Fauci said in an interview during an Atlantic conference in Washington, DC, on September 21. “It really becomes semantics and about how you want to spin it.” A “fulminant stage” is the period of unpredictability of an epidemic, as opposed to the cycle we’re currently in where overall death tolls have largely stabilized, thanks to vaccines and new treatments, even as hospitalizations and new case counts seem to oscillate from week to week.

But if calling a pandemic “over” is a semantic decision, it comes with tangible political and public repercussions. Flu season is right around the corner, and the past two years have shown that the fall and winter are when COVID-19 cases spike considerably. Having the president say that a pandemic is in the past could make it difficult to convince Americans to get new COVID-19 vaccine boosters that gird against more infectious strains like omicron and its subvariants. (Only 35% of eligible Americans have even received their first COVID-19 booster shot in the past 12 months, according to the CDC.) It could also make it more difficult to secure more Congressional funding for new vaccine- and treatment-development initiatives , as some administration officials have already admittedwhich public health experts say will be necessary to respond to evolving strains down the line.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that public health is an intrinsically political issue. And in politics, words have consequences. Biden may have just been saying what’s already been in people’s heads for months—but giving voice to the thought could have ripple effects that make it harder to truly put an end to the virus.


Sy Mukherjee has reported on the healthcare industry for a decade. He is a consultant and communications architect at IDEA Pharma.

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