So... Is The Pandemic Over? Is That Even The Right Question? : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden told 60 Minutes that the pandemic is basically over. Hundreds of Americans are still dying every day, but most Americans are essentially living their lives as they were before the pandemic started. So how are public health experts reacting to the president's remarks? And what's the president's messaging goal?

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis, science correspondent Rob Stein, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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So... Is The Pandemic Over? Is That Even The Right Question?

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ALINDA: Hi. My name's Alinda (ph). I'm on my way to work to take care of the elephants at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

2:21 p.m. on Tuesday, September 20.

ALINDA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but the elephants will still be big and gray. OK.

DAVIS: Oh.

ALINDA: Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: They sound like lovely co-workers to me.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yes - nice elephants.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DAVIS: And NPR's Rob Stein from our science desk is here. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Sue.

DAVIS: So in an interview with Scott Pelley on CBS's "60 Minutes" this past Sunday, President Biden made an unexpected comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

SCOTT PELLEY: Is the pandemic over?

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.

DAVIS: Rob, I imagine this declaration came with a bit of a surprise to the public health community.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, boy, don't we all wish it was true? The pandemic's over; wrap it up in a pretty bow, and move on. But I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that's kind of become my lot in life.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

STEIN: The pandemic is not over. The virus is still killing more than 400 people every day, which translates into almost 150,000 deaths a year, which is clearly a major, ongoing public health problem. That's triple the number of people who die in a bad flu season, and that doesn't even count the tens of thousands of people who are still ending up in the hospital and all the lives that are being upended by just catching so-called mild or moderate cases of COVID - you know, kids missing school, workers calling out sick, plans getting scuttled at the last minute. So unfortunately, COVID is still very much in our lives.

DAVIS: But, Mara, there has been this tension from the beginning between the public health needs and the political needs of this country. And to me, the president at this point saying the pandemic is over is at least reflective of what seems like the political reality in this country.

LIASSON: Yeah, definitely reflective of the political reality in this country. People do not believe they're in the midst of a pandemic. If you listen to what President Biden said, he said the pandemic is over; we still have a problem with COVID. Yes, we still have a problem with COVID, but a pandemic defined as a disease prevalent over a whole country. I mean, we can argue about the definition of the word prevalent, but I think that if you polled people, 9 out of 10 people would say, no, it's not prevalent over the whole country. And people want to move on. The death rate is down. The hospitalization rate is down. No, it has not disappeared, but I think President Biden has proved over his career that for all of his faults, he sometimes has his finger on the pulse of the American voter pretty well. I'm thinking about his remarks about gay marriage...

DAVIS: Sure.

LIASSON: ...Which pushed the Obama administration forward. And now here he's saying we still have a problem with COVID, but the pandemic is over. And I think most people would agree with him.

DAVIS: But, Mara, the White House had to do a little bit of cleanup today at the press briefing (laughter).

LIASSON: A little bit, a little bit - but there are two audiences for this. Of course the White House has to do cleanup, just like they do after the comments he makes about China and Taiwan. But he knows what he's doing, and he meant what he said.

DAVIS: So, Rob, who actually gets to decide when the pandemic is over? And maybe it's not who gets to decide. Is it, like, a metric we're waiting for? Sort of - when is it safe to say the pandemic is over?

STEIN: Yeah. That's a good question. Well, believe it or not, there is no official definition or even really a process for declaring a pandemic over. But, you know, the closest thing we have is an edict that came from the World Health Organization. The WHO declared the pandemic a public health emergency of international concern. And while the WHO says we may be headed towards ending that, that we're not there yet, not even close. The U.S. has declared the pandemic a domestic public health emergency. And - but even the White House says there are no plans to lift that any time soon because it provides certain powers that are still really important for keeping the virus under control.

DAVIS: Rob, how is the president's comments being received among the public health community?

STEIN: You know, it's mixed. Some say, look; the president, as Mara said, is really just acknowledging the obvious - that things are clearly way better than they were a year or two ago. The number of people ending up in the hospital and dying has plummeted because of all the immunity people have built up from getting vaccinated or infected or both. And the virus is not dominating most people's lives anymore. But others say that ignores the fact that while things are much better, they're still far from great and far from where we really need to be, and declaring the pandemic over ignores all the people out there who are still vulnerable, like the elderly, who are the most likely to die from COVID, people with weak immune systems or other health problems. And let's not forget about long COVID.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, Mara, do you see any political liability here for the president saying this kind of thing before the midterms? I mean, Democrats, you could argue, were elected in large part in 2020 because of the pandemic and the idea that they would manage it better. And there are some folks who I think are sort of disappointed in what the president said. There was a protester outside of the White House yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 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.

DAVIS: But, Mara, do you think Democrats risk alienating these kinds of voters who trusted them to manage the pandemic?

LIASSON: Yes. And I think that Democrats assume that those people are not going to - maybe they'd stay home, but they're not going to turn around and vote for Republicans. The president said the pandemic is over, period. We still have a problem with COVID, period. We're doing a lot of work on it. And I think he would say to that protester, we're working on long COVID; we're working on preparations for the next pandemic.

But I think that what happened in 2000 - and you're right - the Democrats and Biden, in particular, got rewarded for their approach to COVID, and Donald Trump got punished. But then what happened in the special elections, the off-year elections, is that the Democrats - including in Virginia, most famously the governor's race there - they got punished for keeping schools closed too long, and parents felt that they could keep their kids safe from COVID without having them stuck at home for, you know, 10, 12 hours a day, going to school on a laptop. And, you know, there are different ways of handling this. And I think that there could be some political upside for Biden, not just for people to say, you know what; COVID's in the rearview mirror; I feel pretty comfortable about that but also showing that he's not part of what a lot of people, including the all-important swing suburban voters - women especially - felt was an overreaction to COVID.

STEIN: Yeah. You know, I hear a lot of what Mara is saying, and I think that it does resonate with people today. I mean, people are definitely tired of the pandemic, and they're ready to move on. But I also do think that there's a certain contingent who are still really worried about COVID and are still worried about, you know, people kind of forgetting about it and leaving them behind.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about this in a second.

And we're back. And, Mara, the president's comments might be also causing some political headaches. Republicans on Capitol Hill have seized on Biden's comments to question whether Congress needs to approve any more COVID-related funding for the pandemic.

LIASSON: Right. And there are a lot of complications around this - saying that the pandemic is over. There are some legal challenges for people who say, hey; there's a vaccine mandate at my employer, but you said the pandemic was over or a student loan relief has something to do with the pandemic, but now the pandemic is over. And yes, you're asking Congress for more money. Now, some of that money is to prepare for the next pandemic. But there's no doubt that Biden's comments will be seized upon by all sorts of people when it comes to dealing with COVID in the present and the future.

DAVIS: Rob, one of the things that's interesting to me about the timing of this - I say as someone who just went and got their booster and their flu shot and has little kids - anyone who would know, we're heading in to cold (laughter) and flu season.

STEIN: Yeah.

DAVIS: I wonder sort of what is the latest preparation or thinking as we head into another fall and winter, which is normally just a time where people get more sick in general?

STEIN: Yeah. That's actually one of the key reasons a lot of people in public health are really concerned about the president's remarks because in some ways his remarks couldn't have come at a worse time from a public health perspective. And the problem is winter is coming, which means another big surge of infections could very well hit the country. And the federal government's main strategy for protecting the country are the new boosters that, for the first time, specifically target the omicron variant. But even before the president's comments, the administration was facing a big, uphill battle to try to convince pandemic-weary Americans to roll up their sleeves yet again for yet another shot. So the concern is declaring the pandemic over is hardly a selling point for getting people boosted.

LIASSON: Rob, what are vaccination rates like right now? And especially for people who've gotten all four shots, should they be getting a fifth shot with the new bivalent booster?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, overall, the vaccination rates are pretty bad, especially compared to other wealthy countries. Only about 70% of those eligible for the vaccines have gotten their first two shots. And when it comes to the boosters, it's even worse. Only about half of those eligible have gotten one booster, and only about a third have gotten both. And the really scary part is less than half of those who need the booster the most, those age 65 and older, are fully boosted. And the answer is, yes. I mean, anybody who got any shot, including if you've gotten two shots and then two boosters, are being recommended to go ahead and get this new booster. And the reason for that is - the hope is that will provide longer-lasting protection. This may be the last one you'll need for a year. It could and hopefully will protect you better against omicron from even getting infected and perhaps could protect you against any new variants that emerge.

DAVIS: Mara, could you take a step back on this? I wonder if you could just - I'm trying to think about where we are in this pandemic. I mean, it seems like this rhetoric from the president, the fact that we have these tools we did not have two years ago - vaccines, obviously being the leading of them - is the message now from the government, we have the tools, but it's on you to use them?

LIASSON: Well, certainly it's on you to use them - as in, these tools are all voluntary. But I do think where we are at now is trying to get people to take vaccines to understand the next time we have a pandemic, how important it is to take precautions, but to also acknowledge the public part of public health, which is that the public, not unreasonably, has decided that COVID is in the rearview mirror, not gone completely, but something that doesn't govern their lives.

STEIN: That's absolutely true. But the key issue here is that we have the tools, we have the vaccines, highly effective vaccines. We have highly effective treatments. We finally have plenty of tests. The fear is that, you know, we've kind of built up this infrastructure to protect people against COVID and maybe whatever the next variant or next pandemic might be. But that if people start to think it's too much in the rearview mirror, we're going to basically let that infrastructure deteriorate again, and we won't be prepared, and we'll get caught flat-footed once again whenever the next crisis hits.

LIASSON: Sue, the White House has asked Congress to appropriate more funds for COVID, but that request has really languished for a long time. Where does it stand?

DAVIS: It has. I mean, there's been some pushback from Republicans, not that this money is needed, but that there's already been so much money spent and that there's a ton of money sitting around in existing accounts that could be sort of repurposed for the needs that the Biden administration is seeking, namely, making sure enough vaccines are available to the country. But it's going to become a fight. And there is a funding bill coming up at the end of the month. Democrats want to put more money for COVID in there. And the president's comments that the pandemic is over is forcing more Republicans to get sort of dug in on this position that's like, hey; then use the money that's already been spent. We don't need, quote-unquote, "emergency spending" anymore.

LIASSON: Yeah.

DAVIS: All right. Let's leave it there for today. As always, Rob Stein, thanks so much for coming on the podcast.

STEIN: Thanks for having me.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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