The United States is finally “out of the pandemic phase,” the country’s top infectious-disease expert said in a television interview Tuesday, as cases and hospitalizations are notably down, and mask mandates are all but gone.
“We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase,” Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said Tuesday on PBS’s “NewsHour,” when asked by anchor Judy Woodruff if the country was near the end of the pandemic.
Fauci expanded on, and clarified, his views in an interview Wednesday morning with The Washington Post, saying the global pandemic is ongoing but the United States is transitioning to a period in which the virus is no longer causing the level of hospitalization and death seen during the omicron wave of infection this past winter.
“The world is still in a pandemic. There’s no doubt about that. Don’t anybody get any misinterpretation of that. We are still experiencing a pandemic,” Fauci said.
He said the United States was in the “full-blown pandemic phase” in the winter, then entered a period he refers to as the “deceleration” phase. The country is transitioning, he said, to the control phase.
“There’s the full-blown pandemic dynamic, the way we were months ago, where we were having 900,000 cases a day, tens of thousand of hospitalizations, three thousand deaths a day,” he said. “The deaths went from 3,000 down to 300.”
Last May, Fauci said he thought the virus could reach the “control” stage by autumn. The delta variant soon rendered that impossible. Omicron then caused the biggest wave of cases yet.
New omicron subvariants—BA.2 and BA.2.12.1—have spread since, and are even more transmissible than previous strains, and nationally the case numbers are rising again, but so far there has not been a surge in hospitalizations.
“Right now we’re at a low enough level that I believe that we’re transitioning into endemicity. … We’re not in the full-blown explosive pandemic phase. That does not mean that the pandemic is over,” Fauci said. “A pandemic means widespread infection throughout the world. … In our country we’re transitioning into more of a controlled endemicity.”
Restrictions are easing as many Americans appear to be putting the pandemic behind them. Masking requirements have been lifted across most of the country, and officials stopped enforcing a federal mask mandate in transportation settings after a judge struck down the requirement.
During the pandemic’s darkest moments, many wondered when the country would be able to declare itself past the disaster, which has killed nearly 1 million Americans.
Fauci’s comments are likely to fuel debate about how the country should handle this moment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that as of the end of February, nearly 60% of Americans— including 3 out of every 4 children—have been infected with the coronavirus. But officials cautioned that the data did not indicate that Americans have widespread immunity against the virus because of their prior infections.
While previous infections are believed to offer some protection against serious disease for most people, health experts say the best protection against infection and serious disease or death is vaccination.
The coronavirus will not be eradicated, Fauci told PBS, but can be handled if its level of spread is kept “very low” and people are “intermittently” vaccinated, though he said he did not know how frequently that would have to happen. And he echoed warnings from the World Health Organization and the United Nations this month that worldwide, the pandemic is far from over as vaccination rates remain too low, particularly in developing nations.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, is appealing a ruling by a Trump-appointed judge that struck down the federal transportation mask mandate, including on planes, though even if successful, the effort would face an American public that could be unwilling to comply again.
And in a reminder that the coronavirus is still present, the White House on Tuesday announced arguably the nation’s highest-profile coronavirus infection since President Donald Trump’s in 2020, saying that Vice President Harris had tested positive and was asymptomatic. She was not considered a close contact to Biden, the White House said.