RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Is the pandemic over? Here's how President Biden answered that question Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. It's - but the pandemic is over
MARTIN: The president's surprise pronouncement is not going over well with some people, including folks at high risk from COVID and those suffering from long COVID. Some of them staged a protest Monday outside the White House as a result. Here's one demonstrator, Hannah Davis (ph). She told NPR she got COVID in 2020 and that she is experiencing long-term symptoms.
HANNAH DAVIS: I am extremely disappointed in Biden's comment that the pandemic is over. There is absolutely not enough attention on the long-term effects of this disease.
MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us this morning. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Clearly, as we heard, some people who are especially vulnerable feel like the pandemic is not yet over. The president is saying it is. You are talking with the public health experts. What are they saying?
STEIN: The short answer from many of the experts I've been talking with is a pretty definitive nope, not even close. While things are certainly way better than they were, say, a year ago, all you need to do is take a look at the number of lives that are still being lost every day to know that COVID is far from being in the rearview mirror. Here's William Hanage at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
WILLIAM HANAGE: Four hundred deaths a day - is that what we're going to be happy with? I think we have to recognize that we still have a big public health problem, regardless of whether or not President Biden says the pandemic is over.
STEIN: If the number of people dying at this rate continues, nearly 150,000 could die from COVID in the next year, and that doesn't even count all those ending up in the hospital and all the lives being upended by the virus - you know, kids missing school, workers missing work, plans being derailed. And the big concern is the president's statement comes at what could be a pivotal moment in the fight against the virus.
MARTIN: A pivotal moment being what?
STEIN: Winter is coming, bringing big fears of yet another winter surge. So the administration is struggling to convince people to once again roll up their sleeves to get new boosters to protect them against omicron. Most people eligible for the first boosters never got them, and declaring the pandemic over is not a great selling point for the new ones. Here's Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We need to get as many people in this country as possible vaccinated with the new boosters. And we already knew we had a challenge to accomplish that, but by declaring the pandemic over, there will be many people who say, well, why do I need to get it?
STEIN: Osterholm and others are especially worried about older people, who are the most likely to die from COVID. And that's not all. Critics say declaring the pandemic over could also make it even harder to convince Congress to approve billions of dollars more to make sure the country has plenty of tests, vaccines and treatments to fight omicron and potentially some new variant that could emerge.
MARTIN: But, Rob, isn't there always that concern? Isn't there always going to be a concern that a new variant is going to emerge? And so in terms of how we live our life, I mean, the vaccines really have changed the trajectory of the pandemic, haven't they?
STEIN: Yes, absolutely, and, you know, that's how the White House has been explaining the president's statement, that he's just trying to point out how much progress the country has made. And, you know, Rachel, some experts agree, like Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.
ROBERT WACHTER: Acknowledging that we're in a new stage, acknowledging the threat isn't gone, but the threat is very different than it was, acknowledging that people have the tools to keep themselves safe, by and large, I think, is a reasonable thing to do as we all collectively sort of move from this emergency footing that we've been on for the last couple of years and try to navigate a new normal.
STEIN: And, you know, he says there's no reason society can't walk and chew gum at the same time - you know, put COVID into proper perspective while keeping up with the testing, vaccinations, treatment and research needed to keep things going in the right direction until the pandemic is truly behind us.
MARTIN: And I imagine we're never really going to know when that is, right? It's not like a president in an election year, no less, we should point out, can just come out and say it is thus.
STEIN: Yeah. You know, and believe it or not, there is really no hard-and-fast definition to declare a pandemic over. I talked about this with Dr. Thomas Frieden. He used to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
THOMAS FRIEDEN: There's no formal epidemiologic definition of when a pandemic is over. There's a degree to which it's over when we believe it's over.
STEIN: That said, the World Health Organization has declared the pandemic a public health emergency of international concern, and the WHO says while we may be getting close to ending that, we're certainly not there yet. The U.S. declared the pandemic a public health emergency, and federal officials say the president's statement in no way signals the government is ready to end that, either. Many public health experts are urging the administration to keep it going because it provides crucial powers needed to keep fighting the virus.
MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.
STEIN: Sure thing, Rachel.
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