The political end of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States appears to have come not from a formal White House statement but, instead, in response to a reporter’s question.
“Is the pandemic over?” CBS News’s Scott Pelley asked President Biden in an interview conducted last week for “60 Minutes.”
“The pandemic is over,” Biden replied flatly. “We still have a problem with covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”
It’s clear why Biden wants to say this. He’s been champing at the bit to declare victory over the pandemic since early in his administration. During an Independence Day speech in 2021, for example, he announced that the country was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” That speech came about 16 months from the first widespread closures linked to the emergence of the virus. That speech was also about 14 months ago.
“Don’t get me wrong, covid-19 has not been vanquished,” Biden said then. “We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the Delta variant, but the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.”
This would prove to be the most accurate assessment of the pandemic. Delta soon ripped through the southern United States, killing tens of thousands. It did so, in part, because many Americans opted not to get vaccinated, often as an expression of their political, not medical beliefs. Biden’s approval rating began to crater as new cases surged and the second year of the pandemic was deadlier than the first one.
Biden’s new declaration about the state of the pandemic is curious for several reasons. One is the timing. The government recently approved an updated booster aimed at better containing the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus. The approval was well-timed; officials are worried about another fall-winter surge in infections, driven by people moving inside during colder weather. And then here comes the government’s chief executive suggesting that the corner had been turned.
Of course, there’s another looming concern for Biden: the midterms. He and his team certainly understand the link between views of the incumbent party and electoral outcomes. Declaring victory over the virus, then, is in part aimed at presenting an argument about competence that’s intended as a bank shot for the Democratic Party.
Unlike his speech in 2021, the change in the status of the country’s approach to the virus isn’t really about what the government is doing. It’s in part about the decreased lethality of the omicron variant. It’s also in part about a political consensus around loosening precautions. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” Biden said — a development that is in part because politicians scaled back mask recommendations in the face of vocal opposition.
Technically, the pandemic isn’t over. The World Health Organization meets regularly to evaluate whether that designation can be revoked; it hasn’t yet done so. But even setting aside the global picture, it’s useful to remember that the effects of covid-19 in the United States have merely leveled off, rather than disappeared.
Consider just deaths from the disease. In the early summer of 2021, as Biden was giving his speech, the rolling 7-day average of deaths hit a low that we haven’t seen since. Over the past several months, the national average has actually risen fairly steadily. At this point, the country is seeing about 400 deaths per day. That’s about 150,000 per year — higher than the death toll for diabetes or Alzheimer’s. It’s 50 percent higher than the death toll from opioids reported last year.
The recent plateau is more obvious if we just look at monthly totals. The most recent Washington Post data end on Sept. 18, 2022, so the data below looks at the period from the 19th of the prior month to the 18th of the following one, back to the Jan. 19, 2020 to Feb. 18, 2020 period. The most recent period is the second highest of the past five months, generally in line with where things have been since the first surge in omicron cases faded.
If we apply the same monthly periods to the states, we see similar plateaus: the number of population-adjusted deaths over a 30-day period is holding steady rather than declining.
Another way to look at it is how the current state of the pandemic compares to the past. If we consider the current population-adjusted death toll with the worst month-long period on record, we see that nearly half of states are seeing deaths at at least 10 percent of the state’s peak. In seven states, the number of deaths over the past 31 days has been at least a fifth of the state’s peak since the pandemic began.
This doesn’t look like a disease threat that’s over. It looks like one that’s holding fairly steady in a lot of places.
Perhaps deaths will decline as treatments improve and because Americans choose to get another vaccine booster, despite the shrugs of officialdom. But death isn’t the only risk, of course: The illness will result in millions of lost workdays and, for an unlucky portion of those infected, long-term symptoms that we’re still trying to understand.
For most Americans this is, indeed, mostly incidental. Most people aren’t wearing masks; the vast majority of people who contract the virus experience little more than a cold. Just as there is an obvious reason for Biden to urge ongoing caution moving into the winter, there’s certainly reason to recognize that we’re in a different position than we were even last year.
Biden’s new effort to push the pandemic into the past may also be recognizing an obvious truth: his ability to shape how people approach the virus has largely reached its limit. He tried to push Americans to close the book on the pandemic in July 2021 and saw his efforts rejected by his political opponents. The calculus now seems to be that if most Americans are going to view the pandemic as something in the past, it behooves him and his party to go with the current rather than against it.