COVID-19 response is not ‘over’ even if Biden says pandemic is
‘We're still doing a lotta work on it,’ president tells ‘60 Minutes’
President Joe Biden's pronouncement that "the pandemic is over" is not likely to change his administration's efforts to respond to COVID-19.
"We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lotta work on it,” Biden said in a "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday. "But the pandemic is over."
The optimistic remarks about the state of the pandemic in the United States will not lead to any immediate change in the public health posture, with a Health and Human Services Department spokesperson saying on Monday that long-standing guidance remains in effect.
"The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency remains in effect and as HHS committed to earlier, we will provide a 60-day notice to states before any possible termination or expiration," the spokesperson said in an email. "Additional information about public health emergency declarations, including frequently asked questions, can be found on our website."
The current public health emergency expires on Oct. 15, and HHS has indicated it will give a 60-day notice before terminating it. To date, it has not done so, and public health officials expect at least one additional extension to the current emergency.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra was asked about the president's comments by reporters in New York on Monday.
"The president was reflecting what so many Americans are feeling and thinking," Becerra said, according to WCBS-TV. “With the masking, with the efforts to protect our children, our seniors, we've learned how to cope.”
Becerra was in New York ahead of events related to the United Nations General Assembly’s meetings this week. He made the comments at a Manhattan press conference after receiving his own updated COVID-19 vaccination. The new bivalent boosters, which were authorized earlier this month, are designed to offer better protection against more recent strains of the virus, and Becerra is among administration officials promoting their uptake.
Biden’s comments were recorded Wednesday as he walked the floor of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit with Scott Pelley of CBS.
“If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing,” Biden said, calling the return of the auto show after a pandemic-driven pause “a perfect example of it.”
While nearly 400 Americans are still dying from COVID-19 every day, hospitalizations and case rates are down. As of Wednesday, more than 1 million COVID-19 deaths had been reported in the United States.
Republicans have been citing the president’s comments about the state of the pandemic, with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, calling for an end to the public health emergency.
“Now that the President has finally acknowledged the pandemic is over, he should immediately begin to unwind the public health emergency (PHE) so our country can get back to normal," she said in a news release. "Instead of clinging to his emergency powers and asking for $22 billion in more COVID-19 spending, President Biden should get to work and take seriously the need to rebuild trust and confidence in America’s public health agencies. It is long past time.”
Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, made the case on Monday for ending the use of proxy voting in the House, which Republicans have pledged to do if they take over the House majority next year.
"President Biden declared unequivocally that the pandemic is over," Burgess said during a hearing of the House Rules Committee. "This is wonderful news. Across the nation, Americans are back in the office and children are back in school, but here in the House, under this speaker, we continue to ignore reality by continuing to use authorities like proxy voting and remote committee proceedings in the name of the pandemic."
California Democratic Rep. Norma J. Torres, who was participating in person while wearing a mask, noted that she was recently exposed to COVID-19 again and was awaiting a test result.
“I do not wish to expose my colleagues if I am positive. I would also like to have the opportunity to continue to do my job as the representative of the 35th Congressional District,” Torres said.
A White House official also said not to expect changes after the "60 Minutes" interview and that any official end of the pandemic globally would be made by the World Health Organization.
“We are not there yet,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a press conference last week. “But the end is in sight.”
The administration is still seeking $22.4 billion in supplemental funding to help combat COVID-19. That includes funding that would help renew testing capacity heading toward a potential winter surge. The administration recently halted a program that allowed Americans to receive free rapid tests at home through the U.S. Postal Service.
“The updated request is for $22.4 billion to meet immediate short-term domestic needs, including testing; accelerate the research and development of next-generation vaccines and therapeutics; prepare for future variants; and support the global response to COVID-19. This funding is vital to our ability to protect and build on the progress we’ve made,” OMB Director Shalanda Young wrote in a Sept. 2 blog post on the issue.
White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha cautioned that it’s more expensive to respond to an outbreak in real time than to be prepared in advance.
"Let me be clear: If we get another surge, Congress likely at that point will step up. It will cost the American taxpayer twice as much and will be less effective," Jha told reporters earlier this month.
But all signs from Capitol Hill point toward lawmakers denying the supplemental request as part of the continuing resolution that will keep the government funded past the end of the month. Republicans have expressed little interest in further COVID-19 aid or in the $4.5 billion that the administration has requested for bolstering the fight against monkeypox.
Ariel Cohen, Sandhya Raman and Lauren Clason contributed to this report.