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There is very little to like, however, about a president saying something about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, or U.S. policy related to Taiwan, only to have staff scramble to walk back or clarify it. The American people deserve clear, consistent messaging from their chief executive on significant and sensitive matters such as these, regardless of who holds that office at the time.
Sure, it’s great that Biden hasn’t repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 or said that it “affects virtually nobody,” or spoken wishfully about Chinese authoritarianism, or opined about how he can simply declassify documents in his mind. But it is not enough to exceed the low bar set by his predecessor.
What a president says matters. So when Biden says the wrong thing, wrong even by his own administration’s standards, it matters a great deal.
“We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over,” Biden said in an interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”
The pandemic is over? That was news to many infectious disease experts, including within Biden’s administration. It was certainly news to the families of the roughly 400 people per day still dying of COVID.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, and Biden himself, have tried to clarify his comments by pointing to his wider remarks about continued COVID efforts. But those attempts don’t simply explain away his very avoidable mistake of saying the pandemic is over, which has required other clarifications from other parts of the administration.
“The COVID Public Health Emergency remains in effect & HHS will provide a 60-day notice to states before any possible termination or expiration. As we’ve done previously, we’ll continue to lean on the science to determine the length of the PHE,” Sarah Lovenheim, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, clarified on Twitter.
It should go without saying that the Biden administration doesn’t get to claim a COVID victory and an emergency at the same time.
To be clear, at this point, COVID isn’t going to totally disappear and neither are COVID deaths. That does not mean the pandemic will last forever. But it is not as simple as saying, “the pandemic is over” right now.
Are we in a better place than we were previously? Surely. Are we entering the endemic stage of COVID-19, when it has settled into a more manageable situation that no longer disrupts our daily lives? Arguably. But when Biden tried to simply distill the complicated reality, inartfully as he did, he may have undermined some of the ongoing efforts that will ultimately help bring the pandemic’s end to fruition.
“When you have the president of the U.S. saying the pandemic is over, why would people line up for their boosters? Why would Congress allocate additional funding for these other strategies and tools?” Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation, told NPR. “I am profoundly disappointed. I think this is a real lack of leadership.”
For anyone wondering about what exactly to look for in determining the transition from pandemic to endemic, we found recent comments from Dr. Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, to be very helpful.
“Now, as we approach the fall, we are in a different place. Many more people have developed a level of anti-SARS-CoV-2 immunity, from vaccination and/or infection. We’ve learned that boosters have an important role to play in terms of protecting against severe disease, though there are still big proportions of the population that haven’t been boosted,” Luban said in mid-August. “But it’s possible that this coming fall is going to be the first relatively normal period for us since the beginning of the pandemic. It may be the beginning of the real endemic phase for us, where most people who get infection have a common cold. But we don’t know that with any certainty, and with SARS-CoV-2 we have to be prepared for the worst.”
That is valuable context. We don’t expect a president to have the same detail and nuance as a scientist or researcher. But we do expect them to get the basics right.
When you’re president, what you say matters — perhaps more than anyone else. It’s not too much to ask that those words are carefully chosen, and don’t require repeated clarifications or walkbacks. It is possible, and necessary, to recognize the improving albeit complicated place we are currently in the fight against COVID-19, without implying that the fight is basically over.