President Biden finally dared to say it last week, declaring in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that the “pandemic is over.” Various public-health eminences are saying he’s wrong, but his comments recognize the reality of the disease at this stage and the public mood. The trouble is that his Administration still hasn’t lifted its official finding of a COVID public-health emergency.
Eric Topol, the Scripps Research Translational Institute director who is one of America’s leading COVID scolds, tweeted “Wish this was true. What’s over is @POTUS’s and our government’s will to get ahead of it, with magical thinking on the new bivalent boosters. Ignores #LongCovid, inevitability of new variants, and our current incapability for blocking infections and transmission.”
But global COVID deaths in the first week of September were the lowest since March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared COVID a pandemic, and even Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week said “the end is in sight.”
COVID has become significantly less lethal as most people in the U.S. and world have gained some level of immunity from vaccination or infection. About 400 Americans each day have been dying from COVID this summer; most are elderly or have other medical ailments. It’s still important to protect the vulnerable.
But for most Americans, COVID is no worse than a bad flu. “If you are up-to-date on your vaccines today, and you avail yourself of the treatments, your chances of dying (from) COVID are vanishingly rare and certainly much lower than your risk of getting into trouble with the flu,” White House COVID response coordinator Ashish Jha told National Public Radio.
But if that’s right, why hasn’t the President also declared an end to the public-health and national emergencies? If the pandemic is over, then so is the emergency. Yet the Administration continues to extend the public-health emergency that was first declared in January 2020.
The reason is almost certainly money. A March 2020 COVID law enables the government to hand out billions of dollars in welfare benefits to millions of people as long as the emergency is in effect. This includes more generous food stamps and a restriction on state work requirements. It also limits states from removing from their Medicaid rolls individuals who are otherwise no longer financially eligible. The Foundation for Government Accountability estimates these ineligibles cost nearly $16 billion a month.
Most outrageous, only weeks ago the Administration used a separate national emergency declaration related to the pandemic to legally justify canceling some $500 billion in student debt. An Education Department Office of the General Counsel memo says the pandemic and national emergency enable the Education Secretary to modify federal student aid requirements under the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act.
Mr. Biden seems to want it both ways. He wants to reassure Americans tired of restrictions on their way of life that the pandemic is over and they can get on with their lives. But he wants to retain the official emergency so he can continue to expand the welfare state and force states to comply. COVID can’t be an emergency only when it’s politically useful.