After making headlines with comments that the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. is over, President Joe Biden is being taken to task by doctors who say that such language could paint an overly-rosy picture of the situation as the fall and winter months approach.
“The pandemic is over,” Biden said during an appearance on “60 Minutes” over the weekend. “We still have a problem with COVID, and we’re still doing a lot of work on it, but the pandemic is over.”
While COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on a downward trajectory across much of the U.S., Chicago’s top doctor says that more context is needed at a critical juncture in the fight against the virus.
“What he was likely referencing and what is different is that it doesn’t need to be the first thing that we are thinking about health risks,” Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said. “In that sense, yes, we are a different place, but COVID is not over as a disease, and I don’t think it will be for perhaps the indefinite future.”
Arwady says that widespread availability of vaccines, antivirals and testing could potentially help the United States to keep cases at “manageable levels” during what is traditionally a time of year when cases spike, but she says that terminology ultimately doesn’t matter as much as practices do in keeping the virus in proper context.
“Whether you use the word pandemic, whether you use the word endemic, we can be thankful that COVID is not, and hopefully will not, disrupt our daily lives like it did in 2020, but the virus continues to mutate, the virus continues to adapt, and we need to do that too,” she said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Dr. Mia Taormina, an infectious disease specialist at Duly Health and Care. She says that she still has patients that are on ventilators and dealing with significant health issues, but emphasized that available therapies should likely ensure against aggressive spikes in virus cases.
“We are going to continue to see numbers up, down, up, down, but in that regard, what I can think of as the worst days of the pandemic, I think for the most part, that is well behind us. I don’t know that we’re ever going to see those dark days ever again,” she said.
Taormina and Arwady both emphasized that significant uptake of new bivalent COVID boosters, which target both the original virus and the omicron subvariant, will be absolutely critical in staving off surges in the fall, and said that proper precautions could turn Biden’s words into an achievable reality.
“We can’t let our guard down, and presume because statements are made that the pandemic is over that we no longer need to stay up-to-date on vaccines as recommended, use masking where appropriate, and I think that’s what’s going to keep us in this good place,” Taormina said.
According to CDC estimates, just under 35% of Americans have received their first booster dose of the vaccine, a significant downturn from those who received both doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The CDC recently authorized the new bivalent booster, encouraging Americans over the age of 12 to get it in order to help protect against omicron subvariants.
As things stand, Chicago and Cook County are currently at a “medium transmission level” of the virus. The U.S. as a whole is averaging just over 54,000 new cases a day, and has seen significant declines in that number over the last month after a brief increase over the summer.
An average of 4,105 new hospital admissions per day are being reported across the U.S., along with 355 deaths.
In Illinois, an average of 2,132 new cases of COVID are being reported daily, the lowest number the state has seen since mid-April. The average number of daily deaths currently stands at nine, state officials say.