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Biden says the ‘pandemic is over’. Here’s what health experts think

While we are in a different place than we were a few years ago, the pandemic isn't over. And that may be exactly the wrong message to send, the experts said.

Sending a definitive message, President Biden stated that the "pandemic is over," in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that aired Sept. 19. He added that "we still have a problem with COVID, we’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.”

Some public health experts were surprised to hear comments like these — and told TODAY that Biden's statement may have come at a particularly bad time when they're encouraging the public to get updated booster shots.

“We are certainly in a different phase of the pandemic. We have vaccines that work, we have new boosters and we have effective treatments,” Dr. Megan Ranney, emergency medicine physician and associate dean for strategy and innovation at the Brown School of Public Health, told TODAY.

“But the pandemic is absolutely not over,” she said.

"We're still seeing a fair number of our community with COVID, so I was a bit surprised by the comments," Dr. Scott Roberts, associate professor and associate medical director for infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine, told TODAY.

Biden’s comments were similar to those of World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said last week that the end of the pandemic “is in sight,” but noted that we aren’t there yet.

“It is definitely true that we’re in a different phase of the pandemic than we were a couple of years ago,” Dr. Taison Bell, assistant professor of medicine in the divisions of infectious diseases and international health and pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Virginia, told TODAY. 

It is worthwhile to acknowledge that progress, but “to declare that it’s over... is not the right message to send,” he said. 

COVID-19 is still killing hundreds every day

Experts generally agree that COVID-19 will eventually become a seasonal virus that we get an annual booster shot to protect against, similar to the way we tackle the annual flu. At that point, the virus will be considered endemic rather than a pandemic.

But to get to that point, "You basically have to decide what is the level of disease spread and consequences that's acceptable for you to carry on life as normal," Bell said.

And with 400 to 500 deaths per day due to COVID-19 (adding up to about 3,000 deaths per week) in the U.S., "that's still too high to say this is going to be our new baseline going forward. There's way too much suffering," Bell said. "And I think it's achievable to get those numbers lower." 

On top of the staggering death count of the pandemic, which will make COVID-19 a leading cause of death for years to come, we're only just beginning to understand the toll of long COVID, Ranney said. "We're going to be dealing with long-term consequences of COVID for decades to come."

We've made great progress, but we don't know what's next

"Most of America — certainly where I live in Connecticut — is treating this as an endemic seasonal disease," Roberts said. "There is this aura of inevitability." While that may be the reality for a lot of young, generally healthy adults, those who are at a higher risk for severe disease "do remain at risk," he said.

And experts worry that, by putting the message out there from such a high-ranking official source that the pandemic is already over, people won't feel the need to get their boosters or take a test if they're feeling sick, Ranney said. And, frustratingly, it's those actions "that are getting us closer to that finish line," she added.

"This is coming on (the heels of) a vaccine campaign for the updated booster," Bell explained. "I think people hearing, top line, the pandemic is over is just not going to help with that message." Declaring the pandemic over could also make it more difficult to get continued funding and resources for public health efforts like providing vaccine doses, Bell said.

Even with updated boosters, we're heading into the winter holiday season, which has come with huge COVID-19 surges for the past two years. And "who's to say there's not a new variant lurking around the corner," Roberts said. "From where I'm standing, we certainly are still in this pandemic. And I expect it to get worse over the next few months."

Strategize when taking risks as much as you can

There will likely never be a moment where we cross a line and say the pandemic is really over, the experts said. Instead, we’re in the midst of a gradual transition towards the endemic phase, TODAY explained previously, which requires making strategic decisions about taking risks and appropriate precautions based on our individual situations.

"It's a kind of choose-your-own-adventure way to navigate the world," Bell said.

To keep you and your community safe, the experts suggest taking the same basic COVID-19 precautions, such as:

  • Get an updated COVID-19 booster, which protects against the original strain as well as the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. (And, yes, you can get your flu shot at the same time.)
  • For those who are immunocompromised, consider getting Evusheld.
  • Take note of what's happening in your local community, including the level of coronavirus transmission, Ranney advised. When transmission levels are higher, that's a sign that you may want to take more precautions and fewer risks.
  • Keep your individual risk factors and the risk factors of others in mind when making decisions to partake in riskier activities. (If you know you'll be seeing a vulnerable family member soon, consider skipping an indoor dinner party, for instance.)
  • Consider wearing a mask when appropriate, like at an indoor crowded event or on public transportation. A mask is still helpful even if you're the only person wearing one.
  • Take a COVID-19 test if you develop symptoms and, if you can, stay home when you feel unwell.

"We want this to be over and we're glad that people are moving back towards normal," Ranney said. "But we also don't want folks to forget that there are a lot of people still dying and getting sick — and there's much more that we could and should be doing as we head into this fall and winter season."

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