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HHS Sec: 'The president is right' about the COVID-19 pandemic

U.S. Health Sec. Xavier Becerra supported comments over the weekend from President Joe Biden, who declared the pandemic over, but that COVID was still a problem.

On CBS's 60 Minutes, Biden said, "The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over."

Biden's comments took senior officials by surprise, according to the Washington Post. And the White House later clarified that Biden was speaking about public sentiment, rather than declaring the end of the public health emergency.

"The president is right," Becerra told Yahoo Finance Monday, referring to the clarified statements.

"He's made it clear that Americans are still dying in the hundreds every day from COVID, and so we have to stay at this. The vaccines are the most effective way for us to get protected," Becerra added.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, said more plainly, "we are not where we need to be."

Becerra said that Biden meant, by his comments to 60 Minutes, that, "the president was reflecting what so many Americans are thinking and feeling."

He added that with effective vaccines, tests, and treatments, the country is on a better path than earlier in the pandemic.

The White House told Yahoo News that the President was stating the obvious.

"I believe the president made it very clear — COVID is still here. We just have to make sure we're smart," he added.

FILE - Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speaks during an interview in Washington on March 17, 2022. Another member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet has tested positive for COVID-19. 
U.S. Health Secretary Becerra tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, while visiting Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department said. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Becerra spoke at an event to promote COVID-19 and flu boosters and vaccines for minorities in New York City, hosted by the Hispanic non-profit Somos. He was joined by NYC health commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan.

Vasan, too, agreed with Biden's comments, noting that the country is in a transitionary phase of dealing with an infectious disease.

"We are no longer in the emergency phase of the pandemic...we haven't yet defined what endemicity looks like," Vasan said.

He added that the entire country, both at the state and federal level, is learning how to incorporate Covid in everyday life.

"We're learning to make collective and community risk assessments, as well as individual, but to continue to move on with our lives. Because we can't go back to the isolation and loneliness of this virus, it's too much for us to take and we've already too much," Vasan said.

Experts pushed back on the idea of the pandemic being over, noting that hundreds of daily deaths does not qualify the end of a pandemic. Others have said that the problem is there is no exact definition of when a pandemic ends.

The one thing all experts and officials agree on is COVID is not going away, and will be with us for some time.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, recently told Yahoo Finance as much.

"We're not going to eradicate this virus form the Earth," he said. "I don’t believe we’re even going to eliminate it from this country to the tune of getting zero cases."

The struggle, Becerra and Vasan said, is in deciding the definition of the outbreak as an endemic, and with that decision comes the removal of public health emergency powers that the President has.

Dr. Peter Hotez, a global health expert and vaccinologist, told Yahoo Finance in a separate interview Monday that the president's comments may have been premature.

"There's very well likely another major new variant of concern out there. We got hit very hard with Alpha in January of 2021 and Omicron in January of 2022. We don't know what January 2023 is going to bring," said Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The World Health Organization stopped short of declaring the pandemic over in recent weeks, emphasizing that an end is in sight as global vaccination rates increase.

But in declaring the pandemic over in casual commentary, the future of congressional funding for the pandemic — and the president's own emergency powers — are in question.

"I was hoping that the White House would issue a clarification today," Hotez said.

"The fact that the White House had ample time to clarify it, that says to me they are deliberately not trying to clarify that," he added.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional quotes from Becerra and to use the word "right' instead of 'correct' in the following statement: "The president is right."

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem

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