Oct 07, 2022
Refuting President Joe Biden's recent claim that "the pandemic is over," a group of physicians, epidemiologists, and other experts warned in an open letter published Friday that Covid-19 remains a deadly and disabling threat, including in the United States, which is ill-prepared for a possible winter surge "fueled by the emergence of new Omicron strains."
"Pandemics do not end with a flip of a switch."
"We know from our clinical and research experience that the pandemic is far from over, and that national efforts to secure the health and well-being of the American public are far from complete," the scholars wrote in the esteemed British Medical Journal. "We are deeply concerned that the Biden administration is minimizing Covid at a time when it needs to be redoubling its efforts to ensure funding and resources to prevent another surge."
"The U.S. hasn't put in the effort needed to move into a new phase with confidence," states the letter. "Booster coverage, even among older Americans, is abysmal, with only half of vaccinated adults having received a booster. This places the U.S. 73rd globally for booster coverage. Fewer than 6% of immunocompromised Americans--a group that accounted for nearly 1 in 5 hospital admissions during the BA.2 surge--have received Evusheld, a therapy to help prevent Covid-19."
To make matters worse, just 4% of eligible Americans have so far received the new bivalent booster tailored to protect against the dominant subvariant. Recent polling found that over half of fully vaccinated adults don't know they are eligible for the shot, and less than one-third say they plan to get their fourth vaccine dose "as soon as possible."
Rampant right-wing anti-science campaigns have played a significant role, to be sure, but so too has the nation's for-profit healthcare model as well as efforts to normalize the ongoing dangers posed by the continuously mutating coronavirus.
Soon after Biden downplayed the pandemic in his"60 Minutes" interview, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that masking will no longer be universally required in healthcare facilities and nursing homes.
"If Biden's recent comment indicates that the administration is positioned to pull back further pandemic mitigation," the public health experts warned Friday, "the U.S. will be preparing for a major storm without even an umbrella in hand."
"Pandemics do not end with a flip of a switch," they wrote, adding:
Despite the widespread belief that the pandemic is over, death and disruption continue. As Americans embrace what McKinsey and Company has called "individual endemicity"--in which people let their risk tolerance dictate the preventive measures they take--transmission rates remain at dangerous levels in nearly every county of the U.S. Throughout the summer, the U.S. recorded approximately 3,000 deaths per week, at least the equivalent of a 9/11's worth of deaths each week, and often more. The Delta and Omicron surges took 350,000 American lives in seven months, almost seven times as many fatalities as claimed by the most severe flu season in years. In early September 2022, Covid-19 was the second leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more lives than stroke and common cancers.
Beyond its outsize death toll, Covid-19 is leaving many Americans in diminished health and with less economic security. More than 7% of Americans report experiencing protracted post-Covid symptoms; recent estimates suggest long Covid has forced at least 500,000 people out of the workforce.The continuing impact of the pandemic is particularly devastating given its unequal burden on communities of color and socioeconomically vulnerable populations, who are less likely to have private insurance to cover prevention, testing, and treatment costs.
The U.S. is in a different position than it was when the pandemic first emerged thanks to the increased availability of vaccines, tests, and treatments made possible by robust government funding. But the money underpinning the free provision of those medical tools is rapidly disappearing, leading to what Adam Gaffney, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University and a pulmonary and intensive care unit doctor, calls "the rationing of Covid-care by ability to pay."
While Biden has repeatedly asked Congress to authorize billions of dollars in additional spending to address Covid-19 and Monkeypox--including resources that would be directed toward international efforts--lawmakers, led by Senate Republicans, have refused for months to allocate new money. The president's premature assertion about the end of the pandemic, meanwhile, has only bolstered right-wing demands for austerity, and the continuing resolution passed last week excluded funding for both infectious disease outbreaks.
\u201cCovid isn\u2019t over, but the federal Covid response might be soon\u2014Biden is punting on pandemic relief for the third time since March: https://t.co/AHgBX11fFf\u201d— Stephen Semler (@Stephen Semler) 1664321674
"Biden's claim is almost guaranteed to sap political will for funding the public health and medical resources Americans need to 'live with Covid,'" says the letter published Friday. "But even as a prematurely 'post-pandemic' order takes shape, cities are beginning to report spikes in wastewater surveillance--an ominous sign of trouble ahead."
Earlier this year, the White House sounded the alarm about a potential coronavirus surge in the coming months that could infect up to 100 million people nationwide, resulting in a million hospitalizations and nearly 200,000 additional deaths in a worst-case scenario.
People in the U.S.--already home to more than 1 million of the world's Covid-19 deaths--have died at a significantly higher rate than their counterparts in other wealthy nations, where universal healthcare, paid sick leave, and other lifesaving rights were won decades ago. Notably, average life expectancy in the U.S. has declined substantially over the past two years.
"We need a full-court press this fall to reverse these trends and reach more of the public with boosters and antivirals," the experts wrote.
Echoing recommendations made recently by the People's CDC, the letter continues:
The U.S. must make smart investments in the future of our country's response. We need to continue prioritizing tests, masks, treatments, and ventilation. Failing to produce these resources and make them widely accessible will effectively waste the benefits of the scientific advances we've made thus far. Inadequate funding may also slow or stop our progress towards developing new and more protective nasal and pan-coronavirus vaccines and therapies.
The Biden administration, with the support of Congress, must be clear: The pandemic is not over--and with strategic investment and planning, we can greatly mitigate its impact. We need a robust national booster campaign, more investment in tests, treatments, and next-wave vaccines, better protections for the immunocompromised and other high-risk groups, and healthier buildings that protect against Covid and other diseases. Leaders and policymakers must not accept or normalize our dangerous current status quo: dramatic reductions in life expectancy, declining health and economic security for many, and the ongoing loss of hundreds of lives per day.
Globally, the pandemic has caused more than 15 million deaths. People in low-income countries have been deprived of equal access to lifesaving Covid-19 medical tools, leaving billions of people in Africa and other parts of the Global South completely unprotected.
The Lancet's Covid-19 commission declared last month that "widespread failures during the Covid-19 pandemic at multiple levels worldwide have led to millions of preventable deaths and a reversal in progress towards sustainable development for many countries."
Starkly unequal access to medicines--fueled by high-income nations gobbling up a disproportionate share of jabs and therapeutics and pharmaceutical corporations refusing to share knowledge and technology--has contributed massively to avoidable suffering. It also enables the coronavirus to continue circulating and mutating, increasing the likelihood of a vaccine-resistant variant emerging.
"The best chance to stop this pandemic is to make vaccines available for everyone, everywhere," a pair of experts wrote recently in Lancet Infectious Diseases. "The efforts to provide booster doses should be balanced with the efforts to attain vaccine equity."
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