New declarations that ‘the pandemic is over’ once again miss the larger point, experts say
LOS ANGELES — “The pandemic is over.”
It’s a pronouncement we’ve heard several times in the more than 2½ years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
As California enters fall with the coronavirus very much on the decline, some are once again declaring victory. But health experts say that despite the significant progress, it’s less about turning the page than about understanding that COVID-19 remains quite unpredictable.
The heat was recently turned up on the long-simmering question when President Biden declared “the pandemic is over” during an interview with “60 Minutes.” Days later, Biden acknowledged the criticism he received over his statement but added that the pandemic “basically is not where it was.”
It wasn’t the first time the president has sought to project the end of the pandemic. On the Fourth of July 2021 — almost seven months into the nation’s vaccine rollout — Biden said, “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”
But that declaration, which came when the U.S. COVID-19 death toll stood at a bit more than 605,000, proved premature. Nearly 450,000 COVID-19 deaths have been reported since, fueled by last summer’s Delta variant and the dual-pronged omicron waves that first struck after Thanksgiving.
Officials across the nation widely acknowledge the substantial gains made in the fight against COVID-19. The U.S. is awash in vaccines and effective therapeutics, and new boosters targeting the dominant circulating coronavirus strain are now available.
And even after the arrival of the omicron variant — which sent cases soaring to unprecedented levels — California came nowhere close to reinstituting the shutdowns or other stringent restrictions that typified earlier phases of the pandemic.
Still, public health experts remain concerned at the considerable number of daily deaths. And there is worry that too few Americans have gotten a single booster shot, which is important to protect against severe illness.
“We are much better off now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said at a recent virtual talk of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But we are not where we need to be if we are going to, quote, ‘live with the virus.’”
There’s no doubt conditions have improved since the darkest days of the pandemic, when more than 3,000 Americans were dying every day. Since August, the U.S. has been reporting 350 to 500 COVID-19 deaths a day. That’s above the low of about 200 before last year’s Delta surge, and is “unacceptably high,” Fauci said.
Over a year, that would add up to 125,000 to 180,000 COVID-19 deaths — four to five times the average annual number of flu deaths, which is about 35,000.
“Four to five hundred deaths a day is just unacceptable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said Tuesday at another Center for Strategic and International Studies forum. “It is a level of suffering and death that we do not accept as ‘living with COVID.’”
While there’s no shortage of pundits, politicians and other prognosticators clamoring to declare the end of the pandemic, the ultimate call is up to the WHO.
And that’s a decision that will likely be based on a scientific committee’s review of data, not personal sentiment.
“The definition of a pandemic is an outbreak of disease that has then spread beyond any one or two countries to a global spread,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist and infectious-disease expert with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
One challenge to defining the end of a pandemic is figuring out when we’ve returned to some kind of baseline for coronavirus cases and deaths. For now, “we don’t have what the baseline is for COVID because we’ve never had it before,” Kim-Farley said.
Before the coronavirus, the last time the WHO declared a global pandemic was the H1N1 swine flu in 2009. That pandemic, however, ended up being less deadly than initially feared, and the agency declared its end the following year.
A prior system outlined by the WHO broke a pandemic flu’s trajectory into several phases — including a “post-peak” period, in which “pandemic activity appears to be decreasing; however, it is uncertain if additional waves will occur,” followed by a “post-pandemic period.”
But COVID-19 is the first pandemic known to be caused by a coronavirus.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has sought to balance the unmistakable data showing the pandemic is improving while emphasizing it’s not over. He noted in early September that the number of weekly reported COVID-19 deaths had fallen to the lowest level since the start of the pandemic.