The Biden administration is sheepishly waving a checkered flag on the pandemic. If you look closely, you can see its members cringing as they do so. Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci told the PBS Newshour that the United States was “out of the pandemic phase” and then walked it back, saying he meant that the “acute component” of the pandemic phase was over. President Biden attended the likely superspreading White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend but skipped cocktails and the meal, opting to just give his talk. Fauci avoided the whole affair. Meanwhile, Vice President Harris continued to isolate after her positive COVID-19 test, and many members of Congress and the administration announced positive test results as well. All of this happened while the White House allowed a renegade federal judge in Florida (where else?) to end the nationwide mask mandate without much of a fight. These mixed messages have been emanating from the administration for months now, and although those with resources have tools to manage COVID-19, care needs to be taken that those without such means are not forgotten.
When Biden pledged to “follow the science,” it was hard to imagine that the country could have ended up here. But the administration made a big bet that vaccines would provide sterilizing immunity and end the pandemic, allowing it to move on to other priorities. Leaving behind the insanity of ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and bleach was certainly a great step forward. However, evolution has had other plans, and variants of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) have kept the pandemic going. This left the White House in a very tight spot: There was little political will to keep pushing nonpharmaceutical interventions, yet the pandemic was far from over. Add to this mounting inflation worries and concerns about the war in Ukraine, and the response has been a clumsy pivot to a message that politicians always turn to: personal responsibility. Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask, get a prescription for the antiviral Paxlovid—if you want to. This may be fine if you have a healthy immune system, great health insurance, and the ability to navigate the US health care system. But what about everyone else?
COVID-19 is at a similar place to where the HIV/AIDS global pandemic was when the antiretroviral drugs came along. Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves told me about important parallels between both pandemics. “The HIV epidemic didn’t go away,” he said. “It just went to where people could ignore it. It went into the rural South, it went to communities that were already facing disparities in health.” At that time, confusion between medicine and public health was also an important factor. “The discourse shifting to private choice and private adjudication of risk is really not what public health science is,” he said. “We work in populations. And if we’re talking about medicine, it’s about private risk and private choices.”
This all hit home for me when—while I was preparing this editorial—I tested positive for COVID-19. After writing about the virus for two-and-a-half years, it was in my body. But I’d had four shots of the vaccine to bolster my already robust immune system, a supply of rapid test kits, and a prescription for Paxlovid from my doctor. The fever was gone within a few hours of taking the antiviral, and I tested negative a few days later. Great news for me, but not for those who don’t have these resources.
Legendary public health leader Paul Farmer summed up this situation well: “Those whose lives are rarely touched by structural violence are uniquely prone to recommend resignation as a response to it,” he said. “In settings in which all of us are at risk, as is sometimes true of contagion shared through the air we breathe, we must also contemplate containment nihilism—the attitude that preventing contagion simply isn’t worth it.”
SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly mutating and recombining, and more variants and subvariants—potentially more pathogenic—are on the horizon. The world is still barely vaccinated, and even in wealthy countries like the United States, resources are inequitably distributed. It absolutely ain’t over. And this is no time to drop the ball.