(The Hill) — President Biden is drawing criticism from lawmakers and public health experts who warn his assertion that the COVID-19 pandemic is over could undermine the administration’s rollout of new booster shots, as well as efforts to secure more funding from Congress.
“The pandemic is over,” Biden told “60 Minutes” in an interview that ran Sunday.
“We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lotta work on it. It’s — 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. And I think this [the Detroit Auto Show resuming] is a perfect example of it,” Biden said during a trip to Detroit last week in an interview with Scott Pelley.
Biden’s comments reflect the administration’s efforts to signal a return to normalcy and show progress in efforts to control the pandemic. The administration has focused its recent messaging on the importance of getting vaccinated and receiving booster shots to increase immunity, as well as the wide availability of antiviral pills and other forms of treatment for those who contract the virus.
But the remarks also contradict some of the White House’s top advisers.
“The pandemic isn’t over. And we will remain vigilant, and of course, we continue to look for and prepare for unforeseen twists and turns,” Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, told reporters on Sept. 6.
The virus is still killing about 400 people per day, a number that is “far too high for a vaccine-preventable disease,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said recently.
The White House declined to comment.
Biden’s remarks are also likely to complicate efforts to convince lawmakers to include in a must-pass government spending bill a $22.4 billion request for additional vaccines and treatments.
“One can imagine that by saying the pandemic is over now, you know, the small window of opportunity or the possibility that there might be additional COVID funding becomes almost impossible at this point,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Federal health officials said the funding is crucial to help meet immediate short-term domestic needs, like testing and research and development of next-generation vaccines and therapeutics. It also would help to prepare for future variants.
Republicans have been unwilling to provide the administration with billions of dollars in new money, and some immediately seized on Biden’s remarks.
“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,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said in a statement Monday.
“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,” she added.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the public health emergency is not being lifted.
“The COVID Public Health Emergency remains in effect & HHS will provide a 60-day notice to states before any possible termination or expiration. As we’ve done previously, we’ll continue to lean on the science to determine the length of the PHE,” tweeted Sarah Lovenheim, spokeswoman for HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Health experts warn prematurely declaring the pandemic over could also undermine the administration’s rollout of an updated booster shot.
Administration officials say the new vaccines will be key to controlling a potential fall surge, and 100 million Americans could be infected without additional funding. “The overall framing of the pandemic being over doesn’t add to the urgent messaging coming from other parts of the administration saying that it’s absolutely critical for people to get their booster shot,” Michaud said.