Last week on 60 Minutes President Biden announced “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it.” Many people were surprised by this statement, especially since US had just rolled out new COVID vaccine boosters.
I would like to address two specific issues; whether the president’s statement was correct and the implication is of this change in the status of COVID-19.
Some of this is semantics. An outbreak of a disease is called an epidemic when there is a sudden increase in cases. As COVID-19 first began spreading in Wuhan, China, it was an epidemic. COVID-19 then became a disease that spread rapidly across many countries and infected large numbers of people, which is when it was classified as a pandemic.
Since COVID-19 it’s still infecting individuals across many countries why would the President say that the pandemic is now over? While some have suggested this was a political move preceding the election there is a scientific reason to suggest a change in status.
A scientific reason to suggest the pandemic is over is that the rate of new COVID-19 infections across the globe has become consistent. In most countries COVID-19 is now identified regularly among the population and although there are variations in the rate of infection there is no epidemic rise. When an infection becomes a consistent entity in the population it is often described as “endemic” and not “pandemic.”
The implications of the change in wording from the President are pretty minimal. COVID-19 remains a disease we need to deal with and fortunately we have effective vaccines and drugs at this point. Also, many people have already been infectived (and have survived due to anti-viral drugs), which does provide background immunity.
The most obvious comparison is to influenza. We have not had an influenza pandemic since 2008, but despite this we still need yearly influenza vaccines and people continue to get infected and die. Much like the current situation with COVID-19, most who die from influenza do so because of pre-existing conditions or immune problems. While we would like to prevent those deaths the responsibility for this unfortunately falls mainly on the individual with the pre-existing medical condition since it’s almost impossible to completely prevent COVID-19 infections in the population.
Therefore, while the “pandemic” may be over, and most people have already returned to normal activities it doesn’t mean that we can ignore COVID.