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Biden’s word salad on the pandemic being over sums up how life will never go back to the before times

September 20, 2022, 9:00 AM UTC
President Joe Biden in 2021
The president seemingly contradicted himself, contending that the pandemic is no more as it continues to kill hundreds a day.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“The pandemic is over,” President Joe Biden declared in a Sunday interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, eliciting enthusiastic head nods from some experts—and panic from others fighting to keep precautions at the forefront of American minds.

The quick quip made headlines. But Biden’s full quote wasn’t so simple, or straightforward.

“The pandemic is over, we still have a problem with COVID, we’re still doing a lot of work on it,” he told CBS’s Scott Pelley with nary a pause, while walking the floor of the Detroit Auto Show—the first in three years because of pandemic precautions. 

“But the pandemic is over,” Biden continued. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing, and I think this is a perfect example of it.”

The president seemingly contradicted himself, contending that the pandemic is no more as it continues to kill hundreds a day.

But he’s right, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Fortune. Because Biden was speaking of an oft-ignored middle ground called endemicity—and it won’t look anything like pre-pandemic life.

Those who are “up in arms” about Biden’s statement are “creating a false alternative,” Adalja said. And they’re afflicted with a “magical thinking that the only way the pandemic is over is if we reset to what it was like in 2019,” he added. But “it’s going to take a toll.”

COVID was the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S. both in 2020 and 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, behind only heart disease and cancer. 

A persistent problem, but no longer a pandemic?

That’s a trend that will continue under COVID endemicity, Adalja said.

“Some people think that it has to be erased” from the list of leading causes of death in the U.S. in order for the pandemic to be over, Adalja said. “It’s not going to be. That’s fantastic thinking.”

COVID will likely continue as a leading cause of death for the “next couple of years,” he said, before “moderating to around flu level” as people continue to build up immunity via infection and vaccination, and as science develops more effective tools.

At some point, he said, COVID will likely be collapsed into the “influenza and pneumonia” category of death, which sat at No. 9 in the U.S. in 2020.

An unsure road ahead

Not so fast, Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told Fortune. 

Perhaps the pandemic has ended, and COVID has settled at levels that will persist indefinitely, making it endemic. But it’s too soon to tell, he contends.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen going forward in terms of new variants, subvariants, the impact of waning immunity,” he said. “We’re not seeing the same peaks of cases we saw earlier in the pandemic. But we don’t know where we’re going from here.”

The president is “well intended,” and the comment was likely “not well thought through,” he said. But “just because a whole lot of people are in a building without masks on doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be transmission.”

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, agrees with Osterholm, saying that the president “clearly misspoke.” 

“I know he moderated that statement by pointing out that it’s still around, but we need to be really clear that the pandemic is not over,” Benjamin said. “We don’t know what fall will bring. We don’t know whether a new variant will emerge.”

Declaring a public health emergency over too soon could very well be a mistake, because we know COVID to be “like a fire, where the embers are still smoldering,” he said. 

“There’s a potential for it to really reignite. I would prefer to continue to prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.”

This fall should give us “more information, but still not a complete picture” of what COVID might look like going forward, Benjamin said.

Be careful what you wish for

To those eager to declare our current normal the new normal, in an effort to return to normal of some kind, Osterholm urges caution—and a hard look at the data.

“I wish it were as easy as merely saying it’s over, but it’s not,” he said. “We still have a disease in this country that is hospitalizing over 32,000 people a day, with over 3,000 ICU admissions, and over 450 cases on average per day are dying.”

May through August of this year in the U.S. saw more COVID deaths than May through August of last year, Osterhold says.

“It’s hard-pressed to say that the pandemic is over.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated Sept. 20 to reflect the name of the CBS journalist who interviewed Biden.

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