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Biden in 60 Minutes interview: COVID-19 pandemic is 'over'

Health experts say we're "not there yet," especially as new variants sidestep immunity. Here's what to know.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said in a 60 Minutes interview that the COVID-19 pandemic is "over," adding that the virus itself is still an issue.

"The pandemic is over," Biden said in the interview, which aired Sunday. "We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it." 

Biden, who was asked about the pandemic in reference to the first Detroit Auto Show in three years, said the show was a "perfect example" of a shift in the world's fight against COVID-19. 

"If you notice, no one's wearing masks," Biden said. "Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it's changing."

The president's remarks were apparently off-the-cuff, with two anonymous senior health officials telling the Washington Post that the administration was surprised. The interview sparked criticisms from Republicans regarding the country's ongoing public health emergency, which is set to expire in October after being in place through renewals since early 2020.

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The World Health Organization still considers COVID-19 a pandemic, though its chief recently expressed a more optimistic outlook. 

"Last week, the number of weekly reported deaths from COVID-19 was the lowest since March 2020. We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a virtual press conference last week. "We're not there yet, but the end is in sight."

The organization says globally, there have been more than 600 million confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic and more than 6.5 million deaths. It reports nearly 500,000 new cases in the past 24 hours, down from a peak of more than 23 million in January. Experts say, however, that the popularity of rapid at-home tests artificially lowers the number of cases reported to government agencies. 

"In a global sense, we are not in a good place with COVID-19," said TEGNA medical expert Dr. Payal Kohli, noting a 3% increase in U.S. cases over the last month and larger increases in Japan and Taiwan. 

The U.S. averages more than 460 COVID-19 deaths each day, according to the latest 7-day estimates from The New York Times. That's down from a peak of more than 3,000 in late January 2021 and 2,600 in February 2022.

New, updated booster shots are available to fight variants of the virus including omicron, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its quarantine and social distancing recommendations last month.

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The Biden administration has maintained that COVID-19 is still a concern, but that the virus's impacts are on a downward trend amid widespread vaccinations. 

“We have a virus out there that’s still circulating, still killing hundreds of Americans every day,” White House coronavirus coordinator Ashish Jha said in a briefing earlier this month. "We now have all of the capability to prevent, I believe, essentially all of those deaths. If people stay up to date on their vaccines, if people get treated, if they have a breakthrough infection, we can make deaths from this virus vanishingly rare."

The CDC did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Biden's interview, which aired as the president was in London for Queen Elizabeth II's state funeral. 

When is COVID-19 endemic?

Scientists warn the coronavirus will linger far into the future, partly as worrisome new variants sidestep immunity. However, it is expected to eventually become endemic -- occurring regularly in predictable patterns. Malaria, for example, is endemic in some countries.

"The transition from pandemic to endemic is a tricky one," Kohli said. "And it doesn't necessarily mean that the severity of the disease is low. What it means is that you're at a steady state and what's happening is very expected." 

There's no set threshold for when COVID-19 could be considered endemic, the American Medical Association says.

Factors like more contagious variants and changing behaviors could shift the tide in the fight against COVID-19, Kohli said, making complacency about the virus dangerous. 

"I feel like we need to turn our thinking backwards and say, despite the fact that we have vaccines, we have 400 Americans dying a day, we're headed into the colder months," Kohli said. "We don't know what lies ahead. And most of us are not wearing masks, which is the best mitigation measure that we had."

She is optimistic about new boosters, encouraging eligible Americans to get the shot but waiting for more data on the longevity of its effects. 

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