Op-Ed: Ending the COVID-19 emergency
January 14, 2022
By: Bobby Jindal and Heidi Overton in the Washington Examiner
"When will the emergency end?" Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked during the Supreme Court’s recent vaccine mandates hearing.
The nation is asking the same question.
This is a pivotal moment in the two-year pandemic. Omicron has created record-high daily cases, but severe outcomes are fewer, ushering in a new phase — the likely transition to endemic status. Emergency order expiration dates are looming. Unless renewed, the public health emergency order should end on Sunday, and the national emergency declaration expires on March 1. Policymakers need to relinquish emergency powers at the end of the surge and plot a sustainable path forward.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, a University of California, San Francisco infectious disease expert, predicted months ago that COVID-19 would become endemic, perhaps like the flu, always circulating with seasonal peaks. She outlined that the transition would occur when the disease severity decreased and the immunity from vaccines and prior infections increased.
We are amid that transition. Omicron in the United States has matched the experiences in South Africa and the United Kingdom thus far. Increased virus transmissibility but decreased virulence means more are getting infected, but relatively few are experiencing severe symptoms, accelerating levels of immunity. This is becoming a manageable problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the isolation time to five days; the Food and Drug Administration authorized antiviral medications from Pfizer and Merck. Individuals are gaining more tools to make personal health decisions based on risk tolerance levels.
The public is ready for this shift.
In a national survey by Scott Rasmussen, 54% of respondents said it was more important to balance healthcare with social, lifestyle, and economic concerns than to stop COVID-19 at all costs. Thirty-four percent disagreed. Rasmussen found 74% are close to resuming their normal life, and 59% said the reluctance of vaccinated people to reengage in normal activities is hurting the economy. More respondents feared the government imposing unnecessary restrictions and lockdowns than they feared COVID-19.
These sentiments may have driven the White House’s recent shift in rhetoric.
President Joe Biden now says that "there is no federal solution" to COVID-19 in an abrupt departure from his top-down approach. The president’s admonition followed his inability to ensure adequate testing and the availability of new therapeutics. It also sits alongside his gloomy message to unvaccinated people that they faced a "winter of severe illness and death." After admitting there is no federal solution, Biden should stop invoking broad emergency authority.
Defining metrics for the end of the pandemic is too important to leave to public health experts alone. Government bureaucrats and liberal politicians are reluctant to give back the power they have accumulated.
Even top medical experts from Biden’s transition team agree. They published a series of academic articles on the need for a "new normal." One article called for an updated national strategy that rejected the "zero COVID" approach and proposed adopting a new measure of aggregate risk of all respiratory virus infections. The debate will continue on metrics and the role of government, but abandoning zero-risk national strategies that result in a loss of freedom is a move in the right direction. Americans place a high value on making personal health decisions with their doctors, not by government mandate.
Some Democrats are finally joining Republicans in rejecting the zero-risk strategy. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot disagreed with the teachers union’s decision to close schools. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said the COVID-19 medical emergency is over. It’s time for the federal government to relinquish broad emergency powers and make good pandemic policies, such as telehealth expansion, permanent through legislation.
The rationale for issuing the emergencies in 2020 was the concern that our healthcare system would be overrun and life-saving measures wouldn’t be available. Some have the same concern now, but the data from New York found 43% of patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 rather than from COVID-19. If the omicron surge peaks quickly as it did elsewhere, this threat will soon dissipate.
Policies will increasingly be decided by state and local governments and informed by individual risk tolerances. The country cannot govern from a perpetual state of emergency; routine operations and due processes must be restored.
Bobby Jindal was the Governor of Louisiana from 2008 to 2016 and a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He currently chairs the Center for a Healthy America for the America First Policy Institute. Heidi Overton, M.D., is the Director of the Center for a Healthy America at the America First Policy Institute. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Clinical Investigation at Johns Hopkins University.
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