Biden finally pulls the plug on COVID state of emergency

In the course of taping an interview with “60 Minutes” last September, President Biden strolled through the Detroit Auto Show with CBS newsman Scott Pelley. Noting that it was the first show to be organized since before COVID-19 struck, Pelley asked: “Is the pandemic over?”

Biden’s answer was straightforward. “The pandemic is over,” he said firmly. “We still have a problem with COVID; we’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.”

The president is well known for his verbal blunders — he has even called himself a “gaffe machine” — but this wasn’t one of them. For all intents and purposes, the pandemic is over. COVID has certainly not vanished, but like the rhinovirus (common cold) and the flu, it has subsided to endemic status. By now, thanks to vaccinations and previous infections, at least 80 percent of Americans have acquired a measure of immunity to the coronavirus. More importantly, infection now results in far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than it once did, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID took a terrible, terrible toll. (Including in my family — both of my parents died in 2021 after being infected with the virus.) But Americans can see for themselves that the nation is no longer in the grip of a pandemic. Social distancing has ended; shops, theaters, and restaurants have long since reopened; COVID testing sites have shut down; and mask-wearing is no longer expected in most settings. At its peak in early 2021, there were more than 3,300 confirmed US deaths per day from COVID. For the past nine months, the number of daily deaths has hovered at around 400. And there is good reason to think that even that number significantly overstates the chances of dying from COVID.

As Dr. Leana Wen explained in a Washington Post column earlier this month, all hospital patients are tested for COVID, and some who have been admitted for reasons completely unrelated to the virus may incidentally test positive for it. “A gunshot victim or someone who had a heart attack, for example, could test positive for the virus, but the infection has no bearing on why they sought medical care,” wrote Wen. “If these patients die, COVID might get added to their death certificate along with the other diagnoses. But the coronavirus was not the primary contributor to their death and often played no role at all.”

A discarded face mask on a sidewalk in Cambridge.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The point is reinforced by Dr. Daniel Halperin, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina. “It has been apparent that many hospitalizations officially classified as being due to COVID-19 are instead of patients without COVID symptoms who are admitted for other reasons but also happen to test positive,” Halperin writes in Time magazine. He cites University of California Los Angeles research showing that “over two-thirds of official COVID-19 hospitalizations since January 2022 were actually ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ the disease.” Other researchers have come to similar conclusions.

All of which reinforces what Biden (and many others) said so plainly: The pandemic is over. And if the pandemic is over then so is the public health emergency that former president Donald Trump first declared on March 13, 2020.

Yesterday, the president finally agreed.

After balking for months at lifting that declaration of emergency, Biden informed Congress on Monday that it would come to an end on May 11. That is nearly eight months after he affirmed on national TV that the pandemic was over and even longer after many states had already ended their own public health emergency declarations.

In the end, it was Congress that forced Biden’s hand. Last November, a bipartisan Senate majority voted 62-36 to cancel the emergency declaration, but the measure went nowhere in the House of Representatives because former speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to let it come to a vote. With the House now under GOP control, that’s about to change. The House is expected to vote this week on H.R. 382, a terse directive to bring the public health declaration to an immediate end. Whether it ends at once, on May 11, or at some date in between, the state of emergency is, at long last, on its way out. It’s a welcome step back to normalcy and to putting COVID, with all its upheaval, in the nation’s rear-view mirror for good.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.