WASHINGTON — White House pandemic response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha delivered a grim message on Friday about the ever-evolving coronavirus pathogen that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates has infected more than 140 million Americans, including President Biden.
“This virus is going to be with us forever,” Jha said during a press briefing otherwise devoted to an update on the president’s health. “It’s really, really important that people build up their immunity against this virus,” he added, emphasizing that vaccination is the best means of doing so.
It was a bracing reminder that any hopes of fully eradicating the coronavirus are long gone. And while many Americans have sought a return to normal life, the coronavirus continues to cause economic and social disruptions.
“Dr. Jha is acknowledging the consensus among medical and public health experts — that COVID-19 is with us for our lifetimes and beyond,” Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert closely aligned with the White House on the pandemic, told Yahoo News.
“But this is not the COVID-19 of 2020,” Wen said, pointing to the widespread availability of vaccines and treatments. “We now have many tools that allow us to live with this coronavirus.”
Biden is fully vaccinated and has received two booster shots. On Friday, he and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre both said his symptoms remained mild after the president tested positive for COVID on Thursday. The president’s infection returned the pandemic to the headlines after several months during which the war in Ukraine, inflation and gun control dominated news coverage.
Some public health experts saw Biden’s infection as a further sign of how complacent citizens have become. Like many Americans, Biden had ceased to wear a mask and had resumed travel, including abroad.
“The president likes to interact and engage with the American public,” Jean-Pierre said in response to a reporter’s question about whether Biden regretted the recent pace of his social and travel commitments.
The several waves of the Omicron variant that have washed over the United States have suggested that the virus initially known as SARS-CoV-2 is becoming increasingly transmissible, though not necessarily more virulent. While that is good news for people who are vaccinated and boosted, it does mean that the virus will almost certainly find new ways to evade immune protections, if only to ultimately cause relatively mild illness.
Even as the BA.5 variant continues to drive new infections, a new, even more transmissible strain known as BA.2.75 has been detected in the United States.
“The dominant strains are so contagious that it’s extremely difficult to avoid infection,” Wen told Yahoo News.
But even if the coronavirus lingers for years to come, it is for the most part the unvaccinated and the unboosted who risk serious illness or death. More than 1 million Americans have died due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
“We’re at a point now where, I believe, where we can prevent nearly every COVID death in America,” Jha said on Friday. The week ended with about 400 people dying daily from COVID-19 across the country.