Is it really?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Biden's comments that the "pandemic is over," plus a question about Lindsey Graham's abortion bill.

The moment Biden, with Scott Pelley, made his newsworth comments. Screenshot: 60 Minutes
The moment Biden, with Scott Pelley, made his newsworth comments. Screenshot: 60 Minutes

Quick hits.

  1. The Department of Justice has charged 47 people in Minnesota with siphoning $250 million from a coronavirus relief program meant to provide meals for children. (The scheme)
  2. The European Chamber of Commerce warned it was losing confidence in China and its standing as an investment destination was being eroded. (The message)
  3. Hurricane Fiona strengthened into a Category 4 storm as it passed through Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It is expected to hit the islands of Turks and Caicos, then Bermuda. (The storm)
  4. The January 6 House Committee scheduled a public hearing for September 28. (The committee)
  5. Protests in Iran have grown violent after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died in custody last week after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating a hijab-wearing law. (The protests)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Biden's pandemic comments. On Sunday, President Biden sat for an interview with 60 Minutes, a media appearance that has become traditional for U.S. presidents. In wide-ranging conversations about his mental acuity, China and Taiwan, inflation, and climate change, the biggest news Biden made was telling CBS' Scott Pelley the pandemic was over.

“The pandemic is over,” Biden said. “We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.

"If you notice, no one's wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape," Biden added as he and Pelley walked through the Detroit Auto Show. "So I think it's changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it."

Biden's comments apparently surprised his senior health officials, some of whom pushed back on his comments, while others said it was time for the declaration to be made.

“We are not where we need to be if we are going to quote ‘live with the virus’,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday. “We still must be aware of how unusual this virus is and continues to be in its ability to evolve into new variants which defy the standard public health mechanisms of addressing an outbreak.”

Polling suggests many Americans agree with Biden, and are now moving on from Covid-19 precautions. 46% of Americans say they have returned to their pre-pandemic lives. However, the virus is still prominent in the United States. Some 400 to 500 Americans are dying each day from or with Covid-19, and there has been an average of 59,000 new cases a day over the last two weeks.

“We’ve had two million cases reported over the last 28 days, and we know underreporting is substantial,” Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times. Covid-19, he told the paper, “continues to be the No. 4 cause of death in the country.”

Along with the public health implications, the comments also put the administration in a precarious political position. Biden has used the pandemic to justify policies like student debt cancellation and is pressing Congress to approve another $22 billion to fight the pandemic. Saying affirmatively that the pandemic is over undermines both of those positions.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to his comments from the right and left. Then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is split on the comments, with some highly critical and others saying Biden is right.
  • Some argue that the pandemic is still deadly, still spreading, and still a part of everyday life.
  • Others say Biden is right to turn the page, and there is good reason to agree it is over.

The Washington Post editorial board criticized Biden's remarks saying the pandemic is not over.

"The pandemic is still raging — in the sense that a dangerous virus is infecting, sickening and killing people, mutating to survive and haunting the globe. The pandemic has shifted — and normalcy has returned in many ways — but it is not over. Why Mr. Biden said otherwise is obvious. The midterm elections are coming, and Americans feel an overwhelming sense of fatigue," the board said. "No hard-and-fast rules mark the exact moment a pandemic ends. The nation and the world have come a long way since the early lockdowns and the devastating delta and omicron waves. Vaccines against the coronavirus are safe and highly effective, giving people confidence to resume many activities. Classrooms are back in person, air travel has revived, commuter traffic is picking up. A lot of the worst misery is in the rearview mirror.

"But the pandemic is surely not over," they wrote. "The seven-day moving average of daily deaths in the United States is nearly 400 and has plateaued at this terrible level since April. The average of new daily cases is 60,000, way higher than in the spring. Weighed down by the virus, average life expectancy of Americans fell in 2020 and 2021, the sharpest two-year decline in nearly 100 years. Covid-19 is the third-leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. Long covid — those suffering a constellation of maladies after the immediate symptoms dissipate — threatens millions of people. The natural progression of the pandemic emergency will be transformation into a more predictable pattern — endemic disease, such as the flu. But waves of new variants have been anything but predictable."

Also in The Washington Post, Dr. Leana Wen said Biden is right, the "pandemic is over."

"By multiple definitions, the pandemic is over. That doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is no longer causing harm; it simply signals the end of an emergency state as covid has evolved into an endemic disease. A pandemic is something that upends our daily lives and profoundly alters the way that we work, go to school, worship and socialize," Wen said. "By now, the vast majority of Americans have been vaccinated or recovered from covid-19 or both. The preventive antibody Evusheld and treatments such as Paxlovid and monoclonal antibodies provide further protection against severe illness. As a result, most Americans have turned the page and abandoned mitigation measures.

"By August, according to a Morning Consult poll, just 14 percent of adults viewed covid as a severe health risk. This tracks with their other findings that only 28 percent still mask in all settings, while 75 percent were comfortable with indoor dining," Wen said. "For most of the country, the pandemic is effectively over because it is no longer altering people’s day-to-day lives. To them, covid has evolved from a dire deadly disease to one that’s more akin to the flu. It’s still something people want to avoid, and they’ll take basic steps to do so, such as getting an annual vaccine. Some might choose to take extra precautions, such as masking in indoor settings. But the societal end of the pandemic has already arrived, a sentiment reflected in Biden’s comment."

In The Los Angeles Times, Eric Topol said it is a "fantasy" to say the pandemic is over.

"In July 2021, we were down to just over 200 deaths per day, half of where we are now. A daily toll in the hundreds is a tragedy, because most COVID deaths could have been prevented by vaccinations, boosters and early treatments. It’s not just the deaths. There have been more than 2 million confirmed new COVID infections in the last month, and considering the untested and unreported cases, the real number is a multiple of that, most probably at least fivefold," he wrote. "This means the virus is still fulfilling its principal objective of finding a huge number of new or repeat hosts to help spread and perpetuate itself. Some percentage of these people who get infected or reinfected will develop long COVID, manifesting chronic and frequently disabling symptoms for many months or years.

"There is still no validated treatment for long COVID. The only way to be certain of preventing it is to never become infected," he said. "We will remain vulnerable if we pretend the pandemic is over. The United States is a negative outlier for booster shots, with only 1 in 3 Americans having had any booster shot. For people 50 and older, only 1 in 4 have had a second booster (fourth shot) even though repeated studies have indicated a lifesaving benefit from the second booster. The U.S. currently ranks 72nd in the world for its booster rate, which is extraordinary given we are the lead manufacturer of vaccines, were the first to validate them, and are purchasing and wasting tens of millions of shots that cannot find a recipient."


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticize Biden for the late declaration and the hypocrisy.
  • Some point out how he uses the pandemic when he needs money, but says it is over when he wants votes.
  • Others mock the declaration given where most of America already is.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board asked is the pandemic over or not?

"Various public-health eminences are saying he’s wrong, but his comments recognize the reality of the disease at this stage and the public mood. The trouble is that his Administration still hasn’t lifted its official finding of a Covid public-health emergency," they wrote. "Covid has become significantly less lethal as most people in the U.S. and world have gained some level of immunity from vaccination or infection. About 400 Americans each day have been dying from Covid this summer, but most are elderly or have other medical ailments. It’s still important to protect the vulnerable. But for most Americans, Covid is no worse than a bad flu.

"But if that’s right, why hasn’t the President also declared an end to the public-health and national emergencies? If the pandemic is over, then so is the emergency," the board said. "Yet the Administration continues to extend the public-health emergency that was first declared in January 2020. The reason is almost certainly money. A March 2020 Covid law enables the government to hand out billions of dollars in welfare benefits to millions of people as long as the emergency is in effect. This includes more generous food stamps and a restriction on state work requirements. It also limits states from removing from their Medicaid rolls individuals who are otherwise no longer financially eligible. The Foundation for Government Accountability estimates these ineligibles cost nearly $16 billion a month."

In National Review, Charles Cooke pointed out how absurd it is given Biden's memo on student loan forgiveness.

"Why does Biden’s statement matter so much? I’ll tell you: It matters because the memo that the Biden administration released to justify his order rested entirely upon there being an ongoing emergency, and because, as Biden has just confirmed, there is no ongoing emergency," Cooke said. "Back in August, Biden’s lawyers argued with half-straight faces that the 2003 HEROES Act — which, as Bloomberg Law has noted, was passed not as a generalized enabling act but 'to help borrowers serving in the military in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks' — could be twisted to apply to any national emergency, including pandemics such as Covid-19. This, of course, was nonsense.

"In May, the Biden administration (correctly) reported that it was obliged to end the use of Title 42 of the 1944 Public Health Services Act at the border because the Covid-19 emergency had passed," Cooke added. "Or, to put it more simply: Three months before Biden’s move on student loans, the CDC concluded that the pandemic was no longer enough of an emergency to justify extraordinary measures at the border. That, a quarter of a year later, the same administration asked us all to believe that the same pandemic was bad enough to justify giving hundreds of billions of dollars to college students was always utterly preposterous. Tonight, on 60 Minutes, President Biden confirmed as much in public. The courts — and the voters — must take note."

In The Federalist, Richard Cromwell says Biden announced that we can do what we've been doing.

"This declaration came on the heels of a recent attempt by the Washington Post to pretend that the 'new normal' is just about annual covid jabs and more spending for pandemic preparedness. No word yet on if Twitter or Facebook are going to cancel Biden or WaPo for spreading misinformation, particularly Ultra MAGA Plus level misinformation," Cromwell quipped. "It’s almost as if the new normal we were threatened with isn’t going to happen and instead, all those who hectored and lectured us for the past two years are pretending that they never really argued for the new normal at all.

"Granted, we’re still quite a way from defeating the truly devastating virus covid unleashed — the tyranny of those neurotics," he said. "Some kids are still being forced to mask, a tool we once recognized didn’t do much, unless we count protecting our qi, until more study was done and it was determined that they don’t do much.  California wants to force kids to get the jab, a shot which doesn’t stop the spread and which is for a virus they were never at risk from, but has to wait for full FDA approval. The Department of Defense is clinging to its vaccine mandate for service members. There are myriad requirements on the state level, none of which will accomplish anything except inconveniencing people."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • There isn't a clear binary of "yes" or "no" here.
  • Still, Biden's comments are mostly in line with the public's psyche.
  • They also create a whole host of political issues for him.

I'm not particularly keen on the binary premise of whether the pandemic is over or not. And I don't think many people are. Yesterday, when I polled my Twitter followers on whether they agreed with the president that the pandemic is over, 35.6% said "yes," 22.1% said "no," and 42.3% said "it's more complicated." I think this extremely un-scientific survey fits nicely into my view that speaking precisely and defining terms clearly matters as much as the question itself.

Scientifically, the question of when a disease goes from pandemic to endemic is pretty squishy. Dr. Stephen Parodi told the American Medical Association that Covid-19 goes from a pandemic to being endemic when "the disease is still around but that it's at a level that is not causing significant disruption in our daily lives... Endemic diseases can be at high levels." Katelyn Jetelina, the epidemiologist behind the popular "Your Local Epidemiologist" newsletter, put it this way: "The 'end of a pandemic' isn’t purely epidemiological, but also physiological, cultural, political, and moral." There is, as you might notice, quite a bit of subjectivity.

Complicating matters is that there is a great deal of public debate among scientists now about the things many of us lowly political writers have been questioning for a long time. Like death counts, for instance. While total deaths globally are at their lowest level since March of 2020, some researchers are further contending we are substantially overestimating deaths because hospitalized patients everywhere are now routinely tested for Covid-19 regardless of symptoms. As Dr. Wen put, being hospitalized with Covid is different from being ill because of it. In Tangle, we've tried to address this problem by noting Covid deaths are the number of people who have died "with or from Covid-19." One doctor in Boston said 70% of reported Covid hospitalizations in her hospital had only tested for Covid incidentally.

Meanwhile, others have said Covid-19 deaths are actually being undercounted. Their argument is that early on in the pandemic, when tests were short and people were dying at home, we didn't count many of those deaths as Covid. Meanwhile, globally, especially in countries who have less access to health care and testing, researchers suspect we are seriously undercounting Covid-19 deaths. This is reflected in substantial numbers of "excess deaths" observable globally.

Maybe it's all a wash. Maybe the "real" number is significantly higher or lower than what we have. Maybe the “real” numbers are lower in the U.S. but higher globally. I can't honestly say I know for sure.

What I do think we know is that Biden's comment is both an accurate representation of the American psyche and creates a whole host of potential problems for his administration. His statement is true in that Americans are mostly returning to "normal" life, myself included. I've had all my vaccinations, I've had Covid-19 twice, and I'll mask or test when I'm asked to, especially before seeing the elderly, an infant, or the immunocompromised. But I simply don't think about Covid the way I used to. And I don't see it impacting daily life in the ways it did even just six months ago.

Given how many people have had Covid-19, the effectiveness of one-way masking, the treatments available, and the numerous vaccines on the market, I think it is rational for us to start thinking about ourselves as "post-pandemic." I don't think this means we have to pretend we don't care or that people aren’t still dying. Cancer isn't a pandemic. The opioid epidemic isn't a pandemic. The flu isn't a pandemic. We still fund research, take vaccines, institute public measures and spend a lot of money and time and thought fighting these things. As we should.

But of course, there are political narratives at play here, too. In that regard, Biden has stepped on a rake. As I wrote when we covered the legality of student loan cancellation, the national pandemic emergency justification was already tenuous. Biden invokes the emergency when he needs it and ignores it when he doesn't. He was, to me, exceeding his authority and politicizing the pandemic. And when he declared it "over" on 60 Minutes, he was saying what he knows the American people want to hear, almost certainly because he understands it isn't totally outlandish to say, given our behavior, and it will probably help him politically.

Still, if that is the president's position, it's high time it became the president's position. That means lifting the national emergency, dropping the pandemic as justification for massive debt cancellation, changing our border policies accordingly, and taking the federal government's thumb off the scale. It doesn't mean — and we certainly shouldn't — stop funding Covid vaccines or research, or offering CDC guidance. But it does mean we can move to a phase where we are doing that without the full federal emergency powers in effect. Providing, of course, the president really meant what he said.



Your questions, answered.

Q: In today's letter you said Senator Graham's bill makes sense if you believe abortion is murder. Earlier in the letter you quoted a source that 629,898 abortions were performed in 2019. Senator Graham's bill's 15 week cutoff would allow approximately 585,805 (93%) legal abortions while preventing under 44,093 abortions. This bill allows the "murder" of far more fetuses than it prevents. Please explain how this bill (in your words) "makes sense" if it is assumed that abortion is murder.

— John from Chesterfield, Missouri

Tangle: I suppose I'm trying to put myself in the ardent pro-lifers’ shoes. Again, there is a lot I dislike about the rhetoric, positions and actions of the "pro-choice" side. But from a political perspective, I am more much "pro-choice" than "pro-life," in that I think the government should have an extremely limited role in regulating the practice. Of course, that is not just a legal argument, but a philosophical, moral and religious one. I've written about this before.

That being said, if legal murder was being committed 629,000 times a year, and there were a bill that would stop 44,000 murders every year, I would support it. That is my point. Graham’s bill isn’t “allowing” more abortions to happen – they are already happening. If your interest is in stopping abortions, and you view abortion as equivalent to murder, why wouldn't you support immediately reducing that number? I think this question is what suspicious anti-abortion activists are asking Republicans who trumpet pro-life language.

Put differently: Graham's bill does not have to be the be-all end-all anti-abortion bill. Many states are already implementing much stricter abortion legislation. What Graham is doing is creating an absolute "maximum" in terms of abortion rights nationally. And, from an honest pro-life perspective, it would be a major step in immediately stopping the killing of tens of thousands of fetuses a year. To carry the analogy out, again, it's hard for me to think of something that would stop me from voting for a bill to save 44,000 lives. Which is why so many Republicans scattering from Graham draws questions.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

It appears an election reform bill may end up on President Biden's desk. Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, are gaining support and co-sponsors. Each clearly reaffirms that the vice president has no role in validating a presidential election, and explicitly bars them from changing the results of the election. The House bill would also raise the threshold necessary for members of either chamber to object to a state's results and clarify the role governors play in certifying their elections. The main difference between the bills is that the Senate version requires one-fifth of the House and Senate to object to a state's results while the House bill requires one-third of each chamber. Both bills are responses to the January 6 riots and former President Trump's insistence that Vice President Mike Pence could have halted the electoral college count.  The Washington Post has the story.

Have a story you think is slipping under the radar? Submit one here.


Numbers.

  • -24%. The percent change in new daily Covid-19 cases over the last 14 days.
  • 30,990. The average number of people hospitalized with or from Covid-19 in the U.S. over the last 14 days.
  • 49%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say businesses should require Covid-19 vaccination for employees, residents or patrons, according to a Morning Consult poll.
  • 54%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say schools should require Covid-19 vaccination for employees, residents or patrons, according to a Morning Consult poll.
  • 28%. The share of U.S. adults who are "very" concerned about coronavirus outbreaks.
  • 55%. The share of U.S. adults who were “very” concerned about coronavirus outbreaks in September of 2020.

Have a nice day.

After flooding destroyed a bridge in Indiana, a high school football team stepped up to rebuild it. Todd Hagan said he and his wife were stunned to emerge from their Switzerland County, Indiana, home after a major rainstorm to find the only bridge connecting them to a main road had been washed out. With nothing left but a small four-wheeler path to a neighbor's house, the couple was stranded. But before they could even draw up a plan, the high school football coach rallied his team to come to the Hagan's property and help. Many of the boys brought family and friends, and a group of 30 people ended up turning out to work. Hagan said the job would have taken him and his wife nearly a month. Instead, it took just three hours. The Washington Post has the story.


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