Biden Says the Pandemic Is Over. Is It?
BU epidemiologist Eleanor Murray says the president’s statement is premature: “A pandemic cannot be declared over by a single country, since pandemics involve all countries”
Here is what President Joe Biden told 60 Minutes over the weekend, while walking through the Detroit Auto Show, when he was asked by Scott Pelley, “Is the pandemic over?”
“The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one is wearing masks, everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing, and I think this is a perfect example of it.”
Is it that simple? The president of the United States, in a spontaneous comment, says the pandemic is over, so it’s over? More than 30,000 people remain hospitalized and more than 400 are dying each day from COVID-related illnesses, according to seven-day averages compiled by the Washington Post.
We took Biden’s words to Eleanor Murray, a Boston University School of Public Health assistant professor of epidemiology, who has spoken out in the past about the importance of clear communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had some strong words about Biden’s declaration.
(Murray recently appeared on MSNBC’s Chris Hayes’ podcast talking about the same subject.)
With Eleanor Murray
BU Today: Over the weekend President Biden told 60 Minutes, “The pandemic is over.” In your view, is it, from a science perspective?
Murray: The COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, as much as we would all like it to be. From a fundamental scientific perspective, a pandemic cannot be declared over by a single country, since pandemics involve all countries. However, even in the US context, it is incorrect to say that the pandemic has ended. COVID-19 cases continue to be high, deaths continue to occur at a significantly higher than normal rate, and we are only just beginning to understand the long-term consequences of COVID on health.
BU Today: If it’s not over yet, what would it take, in your mind, for that to change?
A good working definition of a pandemic is that the disease is “out of control” in multiple parts of the world, such that cases remain unpredictable and at any time, in any place, a new surge could begin. For the pandemic to be over, we need to have a robust system of COVID monitoring and control. This does not mean that we need to mask forever, or close schools, or apply lockdowns. It does mean that we need transparency on how many people are sick, temporary widespread preventive measures when cases are increasing, and long-term sustainable solutions, such as improved ventilation, increased access to outdoor spaces and fresh air, and reliable disease monitoring and surveillance systems. In the United States we currently have almost none of these features in place, and what we did have during the earlier days of the pandemic has been, or is being, dismantled. This will only increase the amount of time we live with the uncertainty that a new surge is just ahead of us, and thus the amount of time we are in a pandemic.
BU Today: Do we actually need someone to officially declare the pandemic over at this point? Is that more of a political than a scientific statement? It seems that by and large, people have resumed pre-pandemic living, with the exception of those still choosing to wear masks in certain situations.
Whether or not we are in a pandemic is a scientific statement, albeit one that does have some measure of expert input in addition to quantitative criteria. What has ended is the pandemic response, and with the end of the response has come a concerted message aimed at convincing the public that the danger of COVID has passed. This message is one that is virtually guaranteed to keep the pandemic going much longer.