On Sunday September 18, 2022, President Biden declared, in a television interview, that the pandemic was now over. It is true that when walking around your neighborhood grocery store you see less masks, and the sale ads for at-home tests are arriving less frequently in your inbox. However, on top of a collective death toll of more than a million, nearly two thousand Americans continue to die every week from the COVID-19 virus.
It’s clear from these data alone that, simply put, the president is wrong: the pandemic rages on. Yet the assertion isn’t entirely meaningless, in that it communicates several assumptions about the pandemic and public health in general. First, it implies that it is acceptable to lose two thousand loved ones a week to a virus that we could tackle with a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation response. Second, it dismisses the fact that continued funding and effort at the federal level is needed to actually combat the virus—the status quo is good enough. Third, it suggests that those of us most susceptible must accept being shunned to a life on the edges, anxious that we could get the virus and potentially die at any point. Finally, it ignores that we are in the midst of a mass disabling event and that, without an Operation Warp Speed-like plan to address the seriousness of Long COVID, will have long-lasting impacts on the U.S. economy and potentially on the global economy as well.
Thousands Dying Every Week Hardly Means the Pandemic Is Over
The leading causes of death in the United States today are, in order: heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, accidents, and stroke. To address heart disease, we have national campaigns to get checkups, advertisements on cereal boxes, and days to “wear red” to improve awareness. We have a “Moonshot” goal led by the president to cure cancer, screenings for various types of the illness, and aggressive treatments when possible. For accidents, there are advertisements on roadways to buckle up, TV announcements for various types of unintentional accidents, and a variety of national campaigns. Finally, for strokes, huge awareness campaigns have been underway to share warning signs, and treatments have improved in recent years.
However, with the third leading cause of death, COVID-19, we are willing to shift backward in prevention and treatment, implying that mass deaths from the virus, let alone a single death, are acceptable. For the past two years of the pandemic, we have seen an uptick in cases during fall and winter months. Leading experts believe this is likely to be the same this year, yet a denial of the pandemic’s existence is only shifting resources away from addressing the need. Further, we are at a pivotal moment for vaccinations in this country. Announcing the pandemic is over could push those who need or want the vaccines away from receiving this protection, allowing another variant to develop and increasing the likelihood of prolonging the pandemic even further.
However, with the third leading cause of death, COVID-19, we are willing to shift backward in prevention and treatment, implying that mass deaths from the virus, let alone a single death, are acceptable.
Whether people in the United States are comfortable accepting thousands dying weekly from COVID-19 as the norm is yet to be known. It is clear these deaths do not impact all equally. People who are immunocompromised, have multiple co-morbidities, are older, or have a disability have been among the populations with the highest death tolls. A controversial interview by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky earlier this year appeared to say these deaths were acceptable, although she later clarified the statement was taken out of context. Unfortunately, for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, COVID-19 is, in fact, the leading cause of death. Not only is the implication that thousands of deaths a week must just be accepted truly astonishing: moreover, the United States is taking no action to protect the millions of Americans more susceptible and dying at higher rates.
Federal Funding Is Still Needed to Address the Pandemic
The September 30 deadline to fund the government and get in last-minute emergency funding requests is rapidly approaching. The president’s statement that the pandemic has ended may have halted one such emergency funding request, hurting his own administration’s efforts to continue vaccinating people in the United States. Earlier this month, the administration made a plea to Congress for “critical” funding for several top issues, including COVID-19. One piece of the request was $22 billion for vaccines, testing, and treatments. The lack of funding earlier in the year forced the administration to pause efforts to send free tests to people in their homes. Republicans are already seizing the moment that the “pandemic is over” and pushing back on any further COVID-19 funding. Without continued funding, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young tells us that the domestic response may not be adequate for a likely fall surge.
Immunocompromised People Want to Live, Too
As someone who is considered by the CDC to be “moderately” immunocompromised due to my primary immune deficiency, I would really like the pandemic to be over. But the harsh reality is that it is not. I received my second booster, my fifth COVID vaccine overall, on September 22. I keep a stockpile of at-home tests, because I test myself weekly before I go into the office for work and my husband needs to do the same. I am careful to only socialize with people that I know have been vaccinated and kindly decline many social gatherings. I would love to live a more carefree life that is not so guarded, and I am not unique in that desire.
But wishing doesn’t make it so. The reality is that the pandemic is not over, and the onus has now been placed solely on those most at risk rather than on a collective and unified attack on a deadly virus. The lives of people who are immunocompromised and disabled are not disposable, and acting as though the pandemic were over makes this assumption.
The reality is that the pandemic is not over, and the onus has now been placed solely on those most at risk rather than on a collective and unified attack on a deadly virus.
Long COVID Is Changing Our Way of Life
Although each of the implications described above about President Biden’s statement that the pandemic is over are equally concerning, the lack of inclusion of a plan to comprehensively address Long COVID, or the post-viral condition many are experiencing after having a COVID-19 infection, may be the most reckless. Long COVID is reshaping work, play, school, and home life. The CDC estimates one in five people who had the COVID-19 virus have Long COVID. Symptoms are different for each person and can impact life each day or come and go, sometimes affecting multiple systems of the body.
Not only is Long COVID an incredible health crisis, but a huge economic catastrophe yet to be comprehensively addressed. A recent study by Brookings found that as many as 4 million people are currently out of work due to Long COVID, with an estimated $170 billion in annual lost wages. Although the Biden administration recently released two reports on Long COVID, these reports fell short of a whole-of-government approach to address the health equity and economic impacts. A colleague and I called for a stronger approach, similar to Operation Warp Speed, to improve care, streamline the response, and drive change. Without a significantly different approach, millions of people in the United States will continue to be left to search for answers on their own without support and direction from an administration that has the power to make change.
Not only is addressing the pandemic good for the health of the nation, but it is also good for the economy.
So let’s be clear: despite the president’s comments, the pandemic is not over, and I sincerely hope there is a re-evaluation of public health goals across the administration and a higher significance placed on the lives of those most at risk. Not only is addressing the pandemic good for the health of the nation, but it is also good for the economy. Having worked for this president and led his disability policy, I know he believes in access, equity, and inclusion for people in the United States. Now, I am calling on him to embed those beliefs in his COVID-19 policies.