“The pandemic is over,” President Biden declared last week while touring the Detroit Auto Show. “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still working hard on that. But the pandemic is over.”
“Nobody wears masks,” he added, gesturing toward the crowd at the convention center. “Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape.”
But the COVID epidemic is not over yet. It has arguably lost its status as a disease that was completely out of control. But it still causes more than 400 deaths a day, about three times that of a bad flu season. New variants are still emerging; a wave of infections this winter could shatter Biden’s optimistic assertion; and long COVID, a debilitating chronic disease, affects an estimated 16 million Americans.
“We’re not where we need to be if we’re going to, quote, ‘live with the virus,'” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, a day after the president’s statement aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” The number of COVID-related deaths, Fauci said, is still “unacceptably high.”
Biden has a long history of gaffes, statements that backfire or land poorly. Most are irrelevant. That was not.
The President’s testimony was bad on two levels, public health and politics.
First, public health. For months, Biden and his aides have struggled to convince Americans to get vaccinated against COVID — and get booster shots, especially if they’re 60 or older. The results were disappointing: less than half of the eligible population accepted even a single booster shot. This month, the government rolled out a third booster shot optimized for new COVID variants, but less than 2% of eligible patients showed up.
“I wish he hadn’t said it,” said Dr. UC San Francisco Medical School Chair Robert Wachter on Biden’s testimony. “It’s not helpful at a time when we’re still trying to get people vaccinated.”
Public health officials are already sharing accounts of people who heard Biden’s testimony and decided not to get another shot.
“We’re already hearing people say, ‘If it’s over, why do I need a refresher?'” said Dr. Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota. “I get it; the country is done with the virus. The problem is that the virus isn’t done with us yet.”
Biden’s aides spent much of the past week explaining it. “Look at his entire testimony,” said White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. “The sentence after ‘The pandemic is over’ is ‘We have a lot to do’.”
But that nuance was lost in Biden’s upbeat performance, which sounded like a claim of victory. That’s why Klain explained a week later.
The political effect was almost as bad. Republicans in Congress crowed that if Biden believes the pandemic has subsided, there is no reason they should vote for more COVID spending.
Biden and his aides have asked Congress for $22.5 billion to pay for vaccines, tests and therapeutic drugs. The motion had already stalled in the Senate; the president’s testimony made his prospects even bleaker.
Why would Biden say something that got him into so much trouble?
Joe Biden loves to be the bearer of good news, especially when an election is coming up. (No politician likes to be the bearer of bad news when an election is coming up.)
He no doubt wants voters to remember that the pandemic ended under his watch — or at least receded enough for them to throw away their pesky masks.
It wasn’t his only foray into unwarranted optimism; just two weeks ago he argued that inflation had been tamed when it appears to have plateaued at an annualized rate of 8.3%.
To be fair, however, Biden has often slipped into lopsided optimism, regardless of whether an election is imminent or not.
He previously declared victory over COVID on July 4, 2021, when he said vaccines would soon deliver an “independence day” from the pandemic. This turned out to be “mission accomplished” after variants of the virus caused breakthrough infections in those vaccinated.
As Biden began his presidential candidacy in 2019, he told voters his election would strengthen moderates in the Republican Party and bring about a miraculous rebirth of old-fashioned bipartisanship. That didn’t end well either.
Optimism can be a good trait in a president. Franklin D. Roosevelt assured Americans that they could weather the Depression and World War II. Ronald Reagan made optimism a hallmark of his vote-winning conservatism.
In Biden’s case, however, the promise has often backfired.
I once asked Biden when he was vice president how to recover from a slip. (I suppose he knew how by now.) “Own it,” he said firmly. “Own it.”
That’s what the President should do now to repair the damage.
“We must continue to argue that COVID is still a threat,” Wachter said. “We still have to encourage people to get a refresher. And we need Congress and other policymakers to consider ongoing funding important, including funding to find a new vaccine and research long-COVID.”
The President rightly celebrated the good news: thanks to vaccines and therapeutic drugs, COVID is no longer as dangerous as it was two years ago. But without more vaccinations and more research, the disease will still cause tens of thousands of needless deaths.
Biden needs to correct his message, and he shouldn’t wait for the midterm election to do so.
https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-09-25/biden-sent-the-wrong-message-on-covid-he-can-still-fix-it Biden sent the wrong message on COVID. He can still fix it