In a surprising announcement last Sunday, President Joe Biden unequivocally declared that the COVID-19 pandemic is “over” in an interview with 60 Minutes on CBS.
“We still have a problem with Covid,” Biden said. “We’re still doing a lot of work on it… but the pandemic is over.”
Biden’s statements created a flurry in the media, with public health officials across the country, including on the Navajo Nation, scrambling to respond to the president’s statement in the days following the announcement.
“I think the president of the United States is kind of stepping back,” President Jonathan Nez said in a town hall on Tuesday.
“I know he said that the pandemic may be over, but it’s really not over, right?” said Nez, who is running for re-election. “The COVID-19 is here to stay but we all know what to do now.”
Cases still ‘pretty high’
Some experts believe Biden’s declaration was premature and risky with about 350 people still dying in the U.S. from COVID-19 daily and around 60,000 new cases per week as reported by the Centers for Disease Control.
More than a million people in the U.S. and 1,898 Navajo citizens have succumbed to the disease since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
“I guess with the words coming from the White House, the pandemic is over,” said Navajo Nation Department of Health Director Jill Jim. “To some extent I agree with that, but to some extent it’s still a very large public health concern.”
Jim said while not as many people are passing from COVID-19, there are still cases, people are still getting sick, and there is still a significant impact to the Navajo Nation population.
“This really hasn’t gone away,” she said.
Epidemiologist Del Yazzie reported that cases on the Navajo Nation have been trending downward since the end of August but, in the past week or so, the moving average is still about 47 cases per day, which is pretty high, he said.
The BA.5 subvariant of the Omicron variant continues to be dominant on the Navajo Nation and across the United States, he added.
“Our daily cases continue to fluctuate,” said Yazzie. “There’s still a lot of Covid transmission going on within our region.”
For that reason, Jim said vaccinations, boosters and continuing with safety protocols and mitigation strategies are still very important.
“We don’t really have a crystal ball to determine how to plan for the future, but we know that we ought to still consider it a priority,” she said.
Regardless, Nez said at some point, his administration will be lifting COVID-19 restrictions on the Navajo Nation.
“It’s going to be on the citizens to push back on COVID-19,” said Nez. “The government and frontline workers have done an outstanding job, and now our citizens have to continue that momentum.”
Jim said that if you have Covid-like symptoms, it is still important to get tested in order to protect close contacts and so you can get the antiviral medication Paxlovid or other oral treatments if you are infected.
‘Not where we need to be’
Biden’s sudden announcement contradicted his own top COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, who said “the pandemic isn’t over” in a Sept. 6 White House briefing.
Just last month, the Biden administration extended the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration through mid-October.
This comes as Biden administration officials, including Jha, have been pushing for a fall Covid booster campaign to keep people protected from the virus through the winter.
Even Biden’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, responded to Biden’s declaration by saying “we are not where we need to be” in order to “live with the virus” in a presentation to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday.
Fauci cautioned that it is unlikely that the “unusual” and highly transmissible disease can be eradicated and that it can still mutate to create new COVID-19 variants.
“There will be more variants,” said Fauci. “How we respond and how we’re prepared for the evolution of these variants is going to depend on us.”
In his 60 Minutes interview, Biden did acknowledge that the psychological impacts of the pandemic have been “profound.”
“It’s been a very difficult time,” Biden told host Scott Pelley, adding that Covid has “changed everything.”
“You know, people’s attitudes about themselves, their families, about the state of the nation, about the state of their communities,” said Biden. “And so, there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, a great deal of uncertainty.”
On the other hand, Biden boasted that under his administration 220 million people in the United States have been vaccinated, which represents about 68% of the total U.S. population.
On the Navajo Nation, 69.1% of tribal members have received their primary series of two COVID-19 shots.
The CDC continues to say that those who are fully vaccinated have lower risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19 and that updated COVID-19 boosters can help restore protection that has decreased since previous vaccination.
With flu season on the horizon, Jha also said that both the flu and COVID vaccinations can be given at the same time if one is eligible and the timing works.
“I really believe this is why God gave us two arms — one for the flu shot and the other one for the COVID shot,” Jha stated in the White House briefing.
Four Monkeypox cases confirmed
In the town hall, Nez also confirmed a total four cases of Monkeypox have been identified on the Navajo Nation so far.
“These are among individuals who have travelled off of the Navajo Nation,” Jim said.
Jim said it’s very important for contact-tracing purposes that signs, symptoms and cases of Monkeypox be reported to NDOH.
“We have been taking a proactive approach to prevent the spread of Monkeypox on the Navajo Nation,” said Nez. “We recently secured doses of the Monkeypox vaccines and they are now available to the Navajo people at each of our health-care facilities.”
According to NDOH website, vaccinations are only recommended for close personal contacts of someone with Monkeypox to prevent or lessen the severity of disease.
NDOH describes Monkeypox as spread through “skin-to-skin” contact with infectious rashes, scabs, or bodily fluids, through contact with respiratory secretions, or by touching objects, and surfaces that have been used by someone infected with Monkeypox.
It can take 5-21 days to develop symptoms after exposure to Monkeypox that may include fever, fatigue, headache, sometimes a sore throat and cough, and swollen lymph glands.
Individuals with Monkeypox can experience rashes on the face, in the mouth, and other parts of the body, including the genital area in the later stages of the illness, which is when a person is most contagious.
There are currently about 24,000 cases of Monkeypox in the United States.
Data suggest that gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men make up the majority of cases in the current Monkeypox outbreak, according to the CDC.
However, anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who has been in close, personal with someone who has Monkeypox is at risk, the CDC advises.
“We just want everyone to be careful,” said Nez. “With the Monkeypox, it’s skin to skin, so use the elbows, fist bumps and hand sanitizers as much as you can.”
NDOH recommends that if you are sick with Monkeypox, isolate at home, stay away from people and pets, and contact your health-care provider for testing, care, and treatment.
“Consider the safety of everyone in your household,” said Jim. “Continue to just be mindful that there are diseases out there that we still need to keep an eye out for.”