The declaration surprised the president’s top health officials, many of whom learned of Biden’s remarks only through tweets and news headlines. The president initially did not plan to make major news about Covid and did not discuss with his health advisers the announcement of an immediate end to the pandemic, two senior officials said.
When the White House reviewed a transcript of his comments after the interview, which was taped earlier in the week, he did not alert his Covid team — leaving the administration without a coordinated response in the immediate aftermath.
In the hours afterward, health officials privately and sarcastically applauded themselves for a job well done: After 20 months of around-the-clock work, they joked, all it took to end the once-in-a-century crisis was for Biden to announce it finished. Others argued that the time had indeed come for such a declaration; that the virus is under control, and Biden was simply blunt about where his administration has long been headed.
At bottom, however, concerns remained that Biden’s lewd comments could undermine the White House’s efforts to effectively bring the public health emergency that is the Covid crisis to an officially declared end — and turn into a political headache when the virus comes roaring. in response.
“We’re not where we need to be if we’re going to, quote, ‘live with the virus,'” Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said on Monday. “We still have to be aware of how unusual this virus is and continues to be in its ability to evolve into new variants that challenge standard public health mechanisms to contain an outbreak.”
Biden’s announcement is likely to give Republicans more ammunition to counter the White House’s request for funding to maintain the federal response to Covid. The White House is seeking more than $22 billion, though Democrats’ confidence that they could secure that amount in the upcoming budget bill was waning even before “60 Minutes” aired.
It could also complicate the administration’s campaign to get people to seek updated vaccines ahead of a potential winter surge — an uphill battle that health officials say will be the real determinant of whether the U.S. can emerge from the pandemic.
“Covid is probably not the biggest issue at this point,” a senior Biden official said. “Just Covid is still a real problem. And if things go badly, the problem can become the biggest again.”
Administration officials involved in the Covid response stressed that Biden’s remarks would not affect their policy planning and that they represented a turning point in the response. The administration is expected to renew its Covid health declaration in October and is looking to stockpile testing materials.
The White House also played down the rhetorical significance of Biden’s comments, dismissing it as an attempt by the president to highlight the administration’s success in fighting the virus. Widely available vaccines and treatments are able to blunt the worst effects of Covid, businesses and schools are open and public health emergencies have largely disappeared. Even if the U.S. is technically still in the midst of a pandemic, aides said, Biden was trying to convey that most people’s lives are no longer under his control.
A White House spokesman on Monday pointed to the administration’s previously released fall Covid plan, which encouraged the use of vaccination and treatment to “manage the volatility of COVID-19 and move forward safely.”
“Used properly, the tools we have can prevent nearly all deaths from COVID-19,” the plan says.
Still, the episode underscores the difficulty the White House faces in claiming political credit for progress against the pandemic, even as it tries to rally a weary public against the threat of a resurgence.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 300 people a day are still dying from Covid-19, and tens of thousands more are hospitalized. Biden officials and public health experts worry that a wave of cases in the colder months could once again disrupt the lives of Americans, and believe that another option is inevitable down the road.
At the same time, the administration is increasingly struggling to get people vaccinated, struggling to overcome pandemic fatigue.
“Public health has really lost the trust of many because we seem to vacillate between different positions,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Here’s an example of one right now. If you say the pandemic is over, why do people need these boosters? We’re already hearing it from the public.”
A chorus of public health disapproval of Biden’s comments prompted White House aides on Monday to point to their efforts to promote revaccinations and secure more funding as evidence that they don’t see Covid as a problem of the past.
Rather, White House officials have insisted they can still mount the kind of aggressive vaccination campaign needed to protect people from a resurgence, while acknowledging that much of the country has moved on.
Earlier this month, the administration decided to release new, updated vaccines so that vulnerable populations can get their shots well in advance of winter. He also sought to rebrand the Covid vaccine as a once-a-year vaccination; The recognition, aides say, is that most healthy people won’t need more protection than what is needed to prevent serious illness, and likely won’t want it anyway.
The new messaging approach developed by Biden’s top health officials is aimed at reviving interest in vaccines and normalizing them as part of a broader public health routine, rather than the latest in a never-ending series of revaccinations.
At a recent press briefing, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator, Ashish Jha, called the move to annual vaccination a “major milestone.” Biden is also expected to give a speech promoting the annual approach in the near future, aides said, in what would be his first public speech on Covid since July.
However, such tactics will likely only lead to administration. Community vaccination advocacy groups report weak demand in the first weeks of the rollout. The lack of urgency, those on the ground said, is compounded by the rush at the state and local levels to eliminate last-ditch precautions against the pandemic, such as masking and vaccine requirements.
“It’s very difficult,” Reed Taxon, co-founder of the Black Coalition Against Covid, said of the state of local outreach efforts before Biden’s “60 Minutes” comments. “The sentiment there is that this disease is over as far as they are concerned.”
Biden officials have privately admitted that uptake of the updated vaccine is likely to remain low, even as they plan to use limited public funds from Covid to push vaccinations that are critical to keeping people safe. This was another factor that contributed to the difficulty in determining at what stage the country was in the fight against the pandemic.
“Where are we in the pandemic?” Osterholm said. “We just have to admit: we don’t know.”