TAMPA, Fla. - Eyebrows are raising at President Joe Biden’s latest comment that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but Tampa Bay public health experts said the virus is definitely still infecting lots of people.
"The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it," said President Biden during a "60 Minutes" interview on Sunday. "If you notice no one’s wearing masks, everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so, I think it’s changing."
But the comment raises questions about what that means and whether the pandemic is really over. Dr Jay Wolfson, a distinguished service professor of public health and medicine at USF, said he believes the president is acknowledging that the country has come a long way in the last two and a half years.
"The pandemic component, where it's continuing to spread worldwide, and it's out of control, is pretty much gone," Dr. Wolfson said. "Most folks believe, most epidemiologists and physicians believe that we're in what's called an ‘endemic stage’ now, where it's kind of become part of the world we live in, kind of like influenza."
World Health Organization leaders agree the endemic phase is close. A big marker is the death trend, and doctors watch that closely. In the last month, over 13,000 people died from COVID-19 in the U.S., according to data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center that gathers federal data. That number is low compared to the 95,000 monthly deaths in January 2021 earlier in the pandemic.
"We know how to treat the disease now. So death is something we should only be experiencing for people who are very, very sick, have multiple morbidities and perhaps have not been able to get vaccinated," said Wolfson.
Now, communities have access to vaccines, antibody treatments and other medicines. Biden’s administration is still asking Congress for emergency funding for COVID-19 to stockpile tests, vaccines and to push for research and development.
"We've learned a lot. And, as a consequence of that, I think it's fair for the president to have said the pandemic is over. But this is where public health really begins to play a critical role," said Wolfson.
Some public health experts said it comes down to how well communities can monitor and prevent another downward spiral.
"It's part of our life now. And it's not something, if we're careful, that's going to cause the kind of death and destruction and the closing of businesses and economic issues we had," Wolfson said.
Health experts said much of the pandemic-era relief for debt and rent have gone away or will go away soon. They said doctors will continue to monitor long-haul COVID-19 and how it changes a person’s health.