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Biden's remarks that the pandemic is over hurts efforts to save lives, experts say

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, many of us have wondered, what's the endgame? Where are we in the arc of this thing? When will the pandemic be over? Well, President Biden had his own answer to that question over the weekend. Here he is responding to Scott Pelley on CBS's "60 Minutes."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

SCOTT PELLEY: Is the pandemic over?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. It's - but the pandemic is over.

KELLY: But is it? Here to fact-check the president is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I would so love for President Biden to be right on this (laughter), but what kind of reaction are you hearing to the president's statement?

STEIN: Yeah. I think we all would love that to be the case, but the president's declaration of an end of the pandemic definitely caught a lot of people off guard, including, I'm told, even people inside the White House. And as you might guess, it's sparked a lot of debate outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some agree with the president. They say the president is just acknowledging the obvious. You know, the number of people getting really sick or dying has plummeted. We have lots of tests and effective vaccines and treatments to keep it that way. And life has pretty much returned to normal for most people. COVID is no longer dominating their lives. Here's Dr. Thomas Frieden. He's a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: I agree with the president. We have a new disease, a new health risk. That's COVID. It's unpredictable. It's killing people. And yes, we need to do much more to control it and much more to care for people. But the pandemic as a phenomenon that ruled our lives for two years - that's past.

STEIN: But others say the president's comments are way off base.

KELLY: OK. Tease that one out for me. The people who think he's way off base - why?

STEIN: They say, look; hundreds of people are still dying every day, which makes it a major, continuing public health threat. Here's Dr. Celine Gounder. She's a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has advised the administration on the pandemic.

CELINE GOUNDER: If by saying the pandemic is over, the president is saying that 3,000 deaths per week or 150,000 deaths per year are acceptable and that some lives matter less than others - namely, the elderly, the immunocompromised and communities of color - that our new normal is that we've grown numb to these deaths, well, I would ask the president, can't we imagine better? Can't America do better?

STEIN: Gounder and others suspect the president's comments are aimed more at helping Democrats win the midterm elections than protecting public health and comes at a particularly perilous moment for the country.

KELLY: Particularly perilous, you said - why?

STEIN: Yeah. Well, you know, for one thing, the administration just launched what's looking like an uphill battle to convince pandemic-weary Americans to once again roll up their sleeves and get new boosters designed to protect them through a third pandemic winter when the virus could very well surge again. Here's Dr. Carlos del Rio from Emory University.

CARLOS DEL RIO: I think that it's an unfortunate comment because it's really important that we get people boosted with a new booster this fall. And when you hear a message saying the pandemic is over, that's going to make it very hard to get people boosted because then why would you get boosted if we already done with this pandemic?

STEIN: And why would Congress agree to the administration's request to spend billions of dollars more to make sure plenty of tests, treatments and vaccines remain widely available?

KELLY: You know, all this has me thinking, Rob, whose job it is, anyway, to declare the pandemic over or not over. Can the President even do that?

STEIN: The short answer is, no, not really. The World Health Organization has declared the pandemic a public health emergency of international concern. And while the WHO is saying the world may be getting close to ending that, we're definitely not there yet. Also, the U.S. has declared the pandemic a public health emergency, and federal officials have signaled they're not ready to end that either. Many public health experts are urging the administration to keep it going because it provides crucial powers needed to keep up the fight against the virus.

KELLY: All right. Keeping up the fight for us, NPR health correspondent...

STEIN: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You're welcome, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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