Biden declared that the epidemic was "over."  His Covid team says it's more complicated.

Biden declared that the epidemic was “over.” His Covid team says it’s more complicated.

The announcement surprised the president’s top health officials, many of whom learned only of Biden’s comments from tweets and headlines. Two senior officials said the president had not originally planned to release important news about Covid, and had not discussed with his health advisers announcing the end of the pandemic soon.

When the White House reviewed a transcript of its comments after the interview, which was taped earlier in the week, it did not alert the Covid team — leaving the administration without a coordinated response to the direct fallout.

In the hours that followed, health officials secretly and mockingly applauded themselves for a job well done: After 20 months of working around the clock, they joked, all it would take to end a once-in-a-century crisis was for Biden to declare it over. Others argued that it was indeed time for such a declaration; That the virus is in a manageable condition and that Biden has been simply setting out explicit terms in the direction his administration is heading for a long time.

However, there was significant concern that Biden’s informal comments could undermine White House efforts to officially end the public health emergency that is the Covid crisis — and turn into a political headache should the virus emerge. They roared again.

“We are not where we need to be if we are going to quote the phrase ‘living with the virus,'” Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical advisor, said Monday. standard for tackling the disease outbreak.

Biden’s statement will likely give Republicans more ammunition to oppose the White House’s funding request to sustain the federal Covid response. The White House is seeking more than $22 billion, though Democrats’ belief in their ability to secure that amount in the next budget bill was waning even before “60 Minutes” aired.

It could also complicate the administration’s campaign for people to get updated vaccines ahead of a potential winter wave — an uphill battle that health officials say will be the true determinant of whether the United States can emerge from the pandemic.

“Covid may not be the biggest issue right now,” a senior Biden official said. “It’s just that Covid is still a real challenge. And if things go wrong, it could go from being a problem to being the biggest problem again.”

Administration officials involved in the Covid response stressed that Biden’s comments would not affect their policy planning, nor did they represent a turning point in the response. The administration is still expected to renew the Covid-19 public health declaration in October, and is moving forward with stockpiling test supplies.

The White House has also played down the rhetorical significance of Biden’s comments, dismissing them as an attempt by the president to highlight the administration’s success in defeating the virus. Widely available vaccines and treatments are able to limit the worst effects of Covid, businesses and schools are open, and emergency health measures have largely evaporated. Aides argue that even if the United States is technically still in a pandemic, Biden has been trying to communicate that most people’s lives are no longer under the control of this pandemic.

On Monday, a White House spokesperson referred to the administration’s previously released Covid-19 plan, which encouraged the use of vaccines and treatments to “manage the fluctuations in COVID-19 and move forward safely.”

“When used correctly, the tools we have now can prevent nearly all COVID-19 deaths,” the plan said.

However, the incident underscores the difficulty the White House has in claiming political credit for its progress in fighting the pandemic even as it tries to rally a weary public against the threat of a resurgence.

More than 300 people still die daily from Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and tens of thousands are hospitalized. Biden officials and public health experts worry that a wave of cases during the colder months could once again disrupt Americans’ lives, and believe that another variable down the road is inevitable.

At the same time, the administration is increasingly striving to vaccinate people, as difficulties in overcoming people’s epidemic stress have hampered them.

“Public health has really lost the confidence of a lot of people, because we seem to be going back and forth between different situations,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Here’s an example of one now. If you say the pandemic is over, why do people need to get these boosters? We’ve already heard that from the public.”

The chorus of disapproval from the public health community with Biden’s comments caught the attention of White House aides on Monday, who cited their efforts to promote booster shots and secure more funding as evidence that they are not treating Covid as a problem of the past.

Instead, White House officials insisted they can still run the kind of aggressive vaccination campaign needed to protect people from a resurgence, while simultaneously acknowledging that much of the country has moved forward.

The administration chose earlier this month to roll out new and updated vaccines to ensure at-risk populations get their vaccines well before winter. It has also sought to rename the Covid vaccine as a once-a-year injection; Aides said most healthy people wouldn’t need more protection than that to stave off severe disease and likely wouldn’t be willing to get it anyway.

A new messaging approach developed by Biden’s top health officials aims to revive and normalize interest in vaccines as part of people’s broader health routines, rather than the latest in an endless series of booster vaccines.

At a recent press briefing, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha described the shift to the annual vaccination tempo as an “important milestone”. Biden is also expected to deliver a speech promoting the annual approach in the near future, aides said, in his first public address dedicated to the Covid virus since July.

However, these tactics are likely to alienate the administration thus far. Community groups doing outreach for the shots have reported lukewarm demand in the early weeks of rollout, and a lack of urgency that those on the ground said has been reinforced by a rush at the state and local levels to stamp out the latest pandemic precautions, such as masking and vaccine requirements.

“This is very difficult,” Reed Tucson, co-founder of the Black Coalition against Covid, said of the state of domestic outreach efforts even before Biden’s 60 Minutes comments. “The feeling is that this disease, in their view, is over.”

Biden officials have privately allowed that access to the updated vaccine is likely to remain low, even as they plan to use the limited government money left over from Covid to pay for the shots as necessary to keep people safe. This was another factor that contributed to the difficulty in determining the stage of the fight against the epidemic that the country is going through.

“Where are we from the epidemic?” Osterholm said. “We just have to admit: we don’t know.”

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