Sonoma County public health experts qualify Biden’s claim on pandemic being ‘over’

“The pandemic crisis is over but I would say the pandemic isn’t over in general,” said Dr. Gary Green, one of Sonoma County’s leading infectious disease experts.|

Dr. Gary Green, one of Sonoma County’s leading infectious disease experts, says he knows what President Joe Biden meant when he recently declared the pandemic was ‘over.’

“The pandemic crisis is over but I would say the pandemic isn’t over in general,” Green said.

He suggested that point may have been lost when Biden, in an interview broadcast by “60 Minutes” on Sunday, also said “we still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it.”

Green, reiterating public comments he made last week, said the county and nation has moved past the historic public health crisis and state of emergency that began in March 2020 and entered into COVID-19’s endemic stage.

That is when public health strategies shifted from emergency response to long-term disease control, banking on the hope that enough people will gain immunity through vaccination and natural infection — and that much less COVID transmission, hospitalization and death will occur, even though the virus continues to circulate.

Green said he remains in favor of wearing masks indoors in settings such as office spaces or stores, or in crowded outdoor public places.

Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley, said he thinks Biden misspoke. From a scientific standpoint, the pandemic is not yet over, he said.

Swartzberg said the definition of a pandemic is an increasing number of cases from an infectious disease, beyond what would be expected on a worldwide scale.

“Quite frankly, that’s what we’re experiencing,” he said, adding that in the United States an average of 350 to 400 people continue to die every day after testing positive for COVID-19. At the current rate, COVID-19 would be a contributing or primary cause of death for 140,000 people over the next 12 months, he said.

But there are more ways of looking at a pandemic, and many Americans have decided they’re ready to move on and accept the nagging consequences of a lingering public health threat.

“If you talk about it psychologically, Biden is really just mirroring our society,” Swartzberg said. “Our society is not only saying that we're going to accept this number of deaths today, our society is also saying we're going to accept the risk that it takes to live how we’d like to, without masks in indoor settings and with none of the non-pharmaceutical interventions.”

Americans have undergone “moral and psychological adaptation” to live with the consequences of COVID-19, just as they have enduring more than 30,000 automobile fatalities a year or as many as 90,000 influenza deaths in a really bad flu season, Swartzberg said.

Since the spring, Sonoma County has averaged about a half dozen COVID-19 deaths a month. On Monday, local health officials announced the latest pandemic-related deaths, bringing the total local COVID-19 death toll to 516.

Officials said an unvaccinated man between 70 and 80 died Sept. 6 and a fully vaccinated and boosted woman between 80 and 90 died Sept. 7. Both had underlying health issues.

The current rate of COVID-19 transmission is an average of 10 daily cases per 100,000 residents. That’s just a little more than where it was during the spring.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said she does not think the pandemic is over and said it was unclear what the future will bring — whether that’s another dangerous coronavirus variant or a big winter surge in infections. While there is currently no need for drastic measures such as government-imposed shutdowns of schools and businesses, it’s too early to assume there is no virus in the community.

“As I've been saying all along, the pandemic is not over — we're learning to live with COVID,” Mase said. “We’re continuing all of our recommendations. We really want to get as many people boosted with the new (updated) vaccine if they've been approved for it.”

Mase also echoed a strong recommendation for people to wear masks indoors outside home.

“We still have a case rate of 10 cases per day per 100,000, which means that we're still seeing about 50 new cases a day in Sonoma County,” she said. “Again, we’re learning to move to that endemic phase and do all the things we've been doing.”

Mase said there is demand for the new updated, bivalent booster but she believes there may be a little bit of confusion about availability. County public health staff are focusing their efforts on encouraging and facilitating updated boosters for the most vulnerable.

The new booster became available in early September. In the weeks starting Sept. 4 and Sept. 11, only 98 and 206 Sonoma County residents, respectively, received a booster. Those are the lowest weekly booster numbers in the past 12 months.

Overall, 78% of Sonoma County residents are considered fully vaccinated, compared to 74% for state.

Green, who works for Sutter Health, said most of the COVID cases he’s encountered are “incidental, people coming in for other hospital needs and they have COVID.” Green said there aren’t that many people in Sonoma County currently seeking hospital care specifically for COVID-19 illness.

“We're not pushed to surge capacity. We're not stretched with treatment and ventilators and not enough medication,” Green said. “Financially, the country has already felt the shockwave of the lockdowns of the pandemic. Now we're into how do we cope with what's here?”

Green said he agrees with the president, if he meant to say that the emergency health crisis is over. One good sign he said is the rapid succession of new variants appears to be slowing.

“We're seeing some variants of omicron, but we haven't seen another variant come out of another country that's going to overtake omicron,” he said. “And that's another part of the crisis. That tells you that we're more endemic ... the pandemic crisis is over, but I would say the pandemic isn't over in general. We're still seeing more cases, deaths from COVID than we would in a flu season.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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