In his second State of the Union speech on Feb. 7, President Joe Biden made it clear that the Administration is moving into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic—one in which the threats of disease and death are considerably diminished, and therefore no longer require the resources and urgent allocation of funds that the previous two years have.
“While the virus is not gone…we have broken COVID’s grip on us,” Biden said. “And soon we’ll end the public health emergency.”
The President outlined his reasons for not renewing the COVID-19 national and public health emergencies when they expire on May 11, which have been extended every 90 days since they were established in 2020. The decision represents a de-escalation in the way the government is treating the pandemic.
But health experts say now is not the time to let down our collective guard on SARS-CoV-2. “I don’t believe the virus has gotten the memo that the pandemic is winding down,” says Dr. Jeffrey Glenn, director of the Stanford Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness Initiative.
“There is a disconnect between the broad perception that the pandemic is behind us, and focusing on getting back to life as it was pre-pandemic,” says Wafaa El-Sadr, founder and director of ICAP at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “But the reality is that we still continue to have substantial transmission and deaths due to COVID in the U.S., and we are in a situation where the virus will be with us for a long time.”
Even when the emergency states end, therefore, the pandemic will not be over, they and others say.
One reason is that the definition of a “pandemic” is primarily based on the breadth and speed of a virus’ spread, and the amount of the world affected by a pathogen. It’s only partially related to the severity of disease caused by a virus like SARS-CoV-2, or even the amount of immunity a population may have against it.
By that main criterion, COVID-19 is still very much with us, with around 200,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths a day globally. The latest Omicron variants quashed any hope of the pandemic ending any time soon. While they do not cause more serious infections than past variants, they have mastered the challenge of hopping more efficiently from one infected person to another.
Even though the pandemic is far from over, many health experts agree that ending the U.S. national emergencies is justified at this point. When these measures were first implemented in 2020, most people were immunological sitting ducks for the virus. The declarations were designed to devote financial resources and personnel to controlling the impact of infections on the population’s health as much as possible by shoring up the health care system and later by providing free vaccinations. U.S. officials decided to end the national and public health emergencies in May primarily because most people have either been vaccinated or have recovered from an infection (or both), so the population’s immunity stands at a higher level. COVID-19 cases—both overall and the severe kind—have declined considerably since those early days.
But the continuing stream of infections means that the virus is still reproducing and churning out mutations. So far, those variants haven’t caused more serious disease—but that’s purely by chance, which makes public health experts uncomfortable with declaring victory just yet. Even though COVID-19 cases are no longer inundating most hospitals, that means it’s time to rethink the COVID-19 response, not abandon it.
The best way forward at this point is to refine and target COVID-19 services to optimize the chances of controlling the virus where it may be causing the most health problems. “I think we need to move away from universal guidance on vaccines and boosters and mitigation measures where everybody gets the same guidance, to a more differentiated and tailored approach based on the different characteristics—both socioeconomic and clinical—of different groups of people,” says El-Sadr. “We are at a different moment in the pandemic, so the moment is now for a different message.”
That message isn’t to put COVID-19 completely behind us, but to move forward armed with the lessons we’ve learned from our experience—the most important of which is never to underestimate SARS-CoV-2.
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