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When the Mask Slips
"The pandemic is over" says more about Joe Biden than COVID-19
“The pandemic is over.”
Those four words rippled across American media within minutes of President Joe Biden’s 60 Minutes interview on Sunday. The headline came as a surprise to those currently dealing with an illness that’s apparently not a problem anymore, as well as to Biden’s own staff, and has inspired reactions ranging from rebukes from epidemiologists to praise from leading Republicans who want to cut public-health emergency funding.
The money quote was taken somewhat out of context, as Biden’s full remarks do convey some level of concern about coronavirus — though they also affirm the sentiment he expressed in the most-noteworthy line:
The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lotta work on it. It's — but the pandemic is over. if you notice, no one's wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it's changing.
Biden’s comments were not accompanied by any specific loosening of public-health measures, but even his words downplaying the severity of our situation were irresponsible. Consider the implications of such rhetoric for encouraging people to get the newly released bivalent boosters: Getting shots into arms is the cornerstone of our national strategy to protect against a renewed wave of transmission this winter, and Biden’s messaging will likely make the embarrassingly difficult task of convincing Americans to get vaccines even harder. (If anyone reading this is on the fence about getting the new shots, please listen to the experts who say it is so important.) It also has ramifications for legislative dealmaking, as Congressional Democrats are fighting to fund continued COVID-related programs and now have less leverage to insist on the necessity of doing so. And it risks the further erosion of institutional trust, as blurring the lines between science-based recommendations and political announcements creates a vacuum for bad-faith conspiracies to spread. The mere fact that Biden made such a proclamation this week highlights his own lack of credibility on this front, as two separate variant classes have taken the administration by surprise since his first grand declaration of “Independence from COVID-19” last summer.
All of the foregoing concerns are worthy of deeper reflection and analysis, especially from people who are experts in epidemiology and public-health communication, as opposed to Substack writers like me. But Biden’s comments included three specific claims that are so off-base — whether due to detached callousness or outright lying — that even I’m confident in calling bullshit. Let’s consider the specifics of what our Commander-in-Chief actually said, and why it reveals more about his own disinterest in public-health leadership than about the state of COVID.
“The pandemic is over.”
Let’s start with the basic question of whether a leader of a single country even can credibly define the end of a pandemic. According to the CDC, a pandemic is explicitly defined by being international: “a disease [that] spreads across several countries and affects a large number of people.” They even offer the specific example of COVID, and how it was initially classified as an epidemic when it first emerged in Wuhan but became a pandemic when it spread around the world. Determining its end is thus out of any head-of-state’s jurisdiction. Calling the pandemic over because cases were negligible in the United States, even if it were true, would be like measuring the worldwide impact of climate change solely by its effect on American weather.
A credible proclamation that that the pandemic was over would definitionally come from the head of an international public-health body — someone like, say, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. As it happens, Ghebreyesus said the exact opposite four days before Biden’s 60 Minutes interview. While striking an optimistic tone that “the end is in sight,” he offered an “urgent call” not to weaken but to strengthen public-health policies in what will hopefully be the final phase of the pandemic. “We can see the finish line,” Ghebreyesus warned, but the last stretch of the race is “the worst time to stop running.”
The specific phrasing Biden used was also notable, as either directly references or coincidentally recalls a recent quote from White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha. “The pandemic isn’t over,” Dr. Jha said 12 days earlier at a briefing about the new boosters. Jha is no safety hardliner. He rose to public prominence over the last couple years in large part due to his ability to couch coronavirus news in a reassuring tone, and has been conspicuously reluctant to make specific policy recommendations beyond the administration’s extant public messaging. Why is Biden openly flouting his top pandemic advisor’s warning — and what would the reaction from Democratic party leaders have (rightly) been if it were Donald Trump who so brazenly ignored such a warning?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose advice Democrats once thought was essential for a President to heed, doesn’t agree with Biden’s assessment either. “The intensity of the outbreak now … is, I believe, unacceptably high,” he said in response to the President’s comments. “We are not where we need to be if we’re going to be able to, quote, ‘live with the virus.’” Specifically, he argued that the speed with which new COVID strains emerge significantly complicates keeping the pandemic under control:
“We still must be aware of how unusual this virus is, and continues to be, in its ability to evolve into new variants which defy the standard public health mechanisms of addressing an outbreak. Where you would expect it that once a certain number of people get infected and/or get vaccinated that you could, essentially, bring an end to the pandemic component of the outbreak … with the combination of the evolution of variants as well as the seasonal aspects that as we get into this coming late fall and winter, it is likely that we will see another variant emerge.
Identifying when COVID is over will never be a perfect science, but previous popularly discussed benchmarks in the U.S. included averaging below 10,000 new cases or 100 new deaths per day. We are nowhere close to these targets. As of this writing, the country’s recent daily averages are around 60,000 cases and 400 deaths.
“No one’s wearing masks.”
There’s no fully reliable data source for how many people in the U.S. are still wearing masks in public. Such behavior varies widely by location and time, and it’s fair to suggest that people overestimate their own caution when taking surveys. Still, as of Morning Consult’s last available tracking poll in June, 75% of respondents said they were still masking in at least some situations. Twenty-seven percent, extrapolating to scores of millions of Americans, said they “always” mask in public. This cohort combined with those who “sometimes” mask to comprise a commanding 56% mandate over those who “rarely” or “never” do so. (More-recent full results are not given for this question, but secondhand data from subsequent surveys show that those who say they always mask in public held steady through August.) Meanwhile, a Navigator poll a few weeks ago revealed that 45% of Americans had worn a mask when one wasn’t required within the previous month — hardly the “no one” Biden claims, especially since that number does not include people who masked in the few places where doing so was still mandatory.
Yet even if the number of people wearing masks were negligible, the obvious confounding factor in Biden’s analysis is that almost all the public masking requirements that had been enacted have since lifted. The same Navigator poll above found that just 33% of Americans believe that mask mandates should be off-limits regardless of transmission rates — in other words, two-thirds of respondents are open to reimplementing face-covering requirements given some level of local prevalence. Beyond the lack of mandates, politicians who campaigned on believing science keep saying that masks are not necessary: Consider the newly unveiled New York subway signs that make a mockery of the idea of masking, or how Biden himself questioned the necessity of face-coverings on public transit, even as his aides pushed back against the judicial strike-down of the transportation mask-mandate. Biden’s comment isn’t a reluctant admission that mask requirements aren’t working. It’s a direct reflection of the public-health guidance his administration has propagated.
Biden’s observation is also incredibly revealing about whom he sees as “no one.” I’m far from the first person to notice the disparities in who is still masking. Anecdotally, frontline workers are more cautious than those who aren’t required to spend long periods of time in crowded indoor spaces. You see far more bare faces in line at the coffee shop than you do behind the counter, and from the customers at the grocery store than among the employees. It’s also apparent that masking is more common among people of color, and the data back that up: Large majorities among each of the Black, Hispanic, and AAPI splits in the Navigator poll said they had worn a mask when it wasn’t required within the last month, compared to just 38% of white respondents. It’s worth asking why that doesn’t register for Biden, or the alleged progressives in the “back to normal” pundit class.
“Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.”
Biden’s 60 Minutes interview came seven days after the 21st anniversary of 9/11. In that week, roughly as many Americans died of COVID-19 as were killed by the terrorist attacks the nation commemorated. No one, let alone a sitting President, would have found it appropriate to look around at the country on September 12, 2001 and remark that “everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.”
It’s true that the borderline-miraculous development of coronavirus vaccines, as well as medications like Paxlovid and Evusheld, have significantly reduced the risks of both mortality and serious illness from COVID. It’s also true that only a third of the U.S. population has received three or more doses of the vaccine, which is considered essential for maximum protection given that immunity wanes over time. More than 1 in 5 Americans have not gotten a coronavirus vaccine at all, often due to accessibility issues or other structural barriers more than an ideological statement, to say nothing of the over 2 billion people in other countries who are still waiting on their first dose. (Even if you think solely in terms of national self-interest, allowing the virus to spread uncontrolled elsewhere in the world creates opportunities for more-dangerous strains to mutate.) Long COVID is still largely a mystery, but the lingering effects of even mild cases can be very serious. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper estimates that the average worker goes on to lose $9,000 in wages from an infection.
I am not advocating for full lockdowns until the virus is extinguished. There are tradeoffs in this world between living safely and living, and reasonable people can disagree about the ideal degrees of risk tolerance at both the individual and community levels. But it is as callous as it is dishonest to say that everyone is in “pretty good shape.” Consider the millions of Americans who are living with long COVID, the billions of people who are un(der)vaccinated, and most importantly those we are losing to the virus even as it allegedly winds down. “Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape” are the words of a man who does not appreciate the consequences of the pandemic. Not everyone can be so lucky.
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