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Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week that the United States is “out of the pandemic phase” of COVID-19.
“We are at a low level right now,” he told Judy Woodruff on "PBS Newshour." “So if you’re saying, ‘Are we out of the pandemic phase in this country?’ We are.”
Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, clarified his comments the following day in an interview with the Washington Post, saying that he meant the U.S. is out of the “full-blown explosive pandemic phase” and currently in a “transitional phase” that will hopefully lead to a point where the country has a reasonable amount of control over the virus.
The comments came as the U.S. grapples with the policy approach to this phase of the pandemic. Various states, cities and private businesses are implementing very different policies on masks and vaccine mandates, sparking confusion for many people trying to follow the rules.
At the moment, the U.S. is recording about 50,000 COVID cases and roughly 300 deaths per day. Those figures represent a major drop-off from the peak of the Omicron wave in mid-January, when 800,000 new cases and about 2,500 deaths were counted each day. There has been a slight uptick in case counts in recent weeks driven by the highly contagious BA.2 variant of Omicron, but the increase is nothing like the massive spikes that were seen at the beginning of earlier waves.
Why there’s debate
Fauci’s statements prompted mixed reactions from health experts and media commentators. Supporters of his view say that, while the virus likely won’t ever go away completely, there’s ample reason to believe that the country has moved past the cycle of severe COVID waves that have occurred periodically since the start of the pandemic. They argue that Americans have enough immunity from vaccines and previous infections that the dangers of severe infections are drastically lower than they were even just a few months ago.
But critics say it’s dangerous for high-profile health officials to send the message that the U.S. is through the worst of the pandemic when the virus has proved to be so unpredictable over the past two years. They worry that a scaled-back COVID response could leave the country unprepared to manage future case surges, especially if a dangerous new variant emerges. Others take issue with any suggestion that the U.S. should return to a pre-pandemic normal while hundreds of people are still dying daily.
The Biden administration is pressing Congress to approve billions of dollars in additional funding for vaccinations, testing and COVID treatments. A $10 billion bipartisan bill has been stuck in limbo for the past few weeks over a dispute surrounding Biden’s decision to repeal a pandemic-era policy barring asylum seekers at the border.
The U.S. is in a much better place but still needs to be wary
“For a pandemic-weary public, there are cautions to be heeded. No one knows when or whether another variant of the virus will emerge, either more transmissible or more severe. It could still happen. … Elsewhere in the world, the pandemic is hardly over. China is battling a major outbreak; many poor countries are yet to be vaccinated. The ‘acute’ phase might be easing in the United States, but the virus has not vanished.” — Editorial, Washington Post
The virus is too unpredictable for us to know what to expect in the future
“The SARS-CoV-2 virus has surprised us again and again. We should be wary of declaring victory too soon.” — Andrew Lover, epidemiologist, to Boston Globe
For many Americans, the pandemic phase has been over for a long time
“In any event, Fauci may be late to the party anyway. People all over the world, including here in the United States, have decided for themselves that we are no longer in pandemic mode when it comes to the virus. Part of the reason is that people are just done with living in the pandemic world. But it also has to do with the fact that cities, states and countries everywhere have relaxed their pandemic strictures.” — Tom Wrobleski, SILive.com
The state of the pandemic might be much worse than official data suggests
“In recent months, testing practices have changed across the country, as at-home rapid tests have gone fully mainstream. These tests, however, don’t usually get recorded in official case counts. This means that our data could be missing a whole lot of infections across the country — enough to obscure a large surge.” — Yasmin Tayag, Atlantic
Another deadly COVID wave is still very possible
“I feel it’s still possible we could see a new variant of concern rip across Texas and U.S. Southern states this summer, just as we did in 2020 and 2021. Reasons: 1) too few vaccinated in this part of the country, 2) immunity from omicron not durable.” — Peter Hotez, vaccine specialist
We shouldn’t be celebrating a situation in which hundreds of people are dying every day
“People have absorbed their personal risk calculations and simply decided that they will return more to a so-called normal life, even as the virus continues to claim lives. We seem, as a society, to have become resigned to the virus, accepting a certain level of sickness and death as the new normal.” — Charles M. Blow, New York Times
Debates over vocabulary take the focus away from what we actually need to do to protect people
“Instead of debating terminology like ‘pandemic,’ ‘endemic,’ ‘full-blown’ or ‘controlled,’ we need to focus on promoting vaccination and other actions we know will help control the spread of the virus. That includes communicating honestly about what we do and don’t know and telling Americans what they need to know in language they can understand.” — Brian Castrucci and Beth S. Linas, NBC News
Overly optimistic rhetoric could undercut lawmakers’ commitment to fighting the virus
“As cases continue mounting around the globe, the pandemic shows no signs of ending yet – and conflicting pictures offered by top health officials may hamper the renewal of critical COVIDovid funds and efforts like vaccination campaigns.” — Melody Schreiber, Guardian
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images, Getty Images