COVID Fades As Major Issue Ahead Of Midterm Elections

President Joe Biden's victory lap this week to celebrate a string of recent victories in Congress comes as the administration faces a looming deadline to extend the public health emergency for COVID-19.

But in a sign of how much has changed since the pandemic began, Biden's expected extension of the public health emergency may not even register as major news at a moment when many Americans are focused on the economy and the largest spike in inflation in four decades.

Far from becoming a referendum on Biden's handling of the pandemic, the midterm elections are shaping up as a bitter partisan contest over issues like abortion, immigration, and the effort by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

"The pandemic won't be the primary focus of the midterms," said Nancy Mills, a former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. "We're not in the same position we were in in 2020."

Biden's own experience with the virus in recent weeks underscored the progress that's been made in curbing the pandemic, as well as the lingering problems that remain unresolved.

On the one hand, Biden, who is fully vaccinated and double-boosted, had only mild symptoms in his recent back-to-back COVID cases. But the president's bouts with the illness were a reminder that the pandemic has not been eradicated.

"We're making progress, lots of progress," said Eric Rubin, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "but our lives are still disrupted" by the pandemic.

Due to the BA.5 variant, which is highly infectious but less deadly than previous strains of COVID-19, the United States is averaging approximately 107,000 new cases per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 400 people are dying daily from the illness.

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President Joe Biden arrives to deliver remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2022. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

According to the CDC, 77% of Americans aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated. But just 51% of adults are fully vaccinated and have also gotten one booster shot. Only 32% of adults aged 50 and older who are eligible for a second booster shot have gotten one.

There are some encouraging signs in the latest data. The death rate now is much lower than it was following the outbreak of the Delta and Omicron variants. Hospitalization rates in the U.S. have dropped as well, compared to previous peaks of the pandemic.

But the number of cases is likely undercounted, because a growing number of people who test positive using at-home tests don't report the results, public health experts said. That makes it harder for the government and researchers to understand the disease and the efficacy of both vaccines and antiviral treatments.

"It's hard to say what the hospitalization rate and death rate are after infection because we no longer know what the total amount of cases is," said Andrew Pekosz, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University.

One thing is clear, however, Pekosz said: COVID is not going to disappear anytime soon — and the public should prepare for the likelihood that more variants will develop in the future. "That is now the most likely if not absolutely guaranteed pathway that we'll see," he said.

The Biden administration has taken steps to prepare for a potential spike in cases this fall and winter, while also contending with the recent outbreak of the monkeypox virus.

The administration has worked with pharmacies to make Paxlovid, the antiviral pill with which Biden was treated, widely available across the country. The federal government has also bought at least 171 million doses of "bivalent" vaccine booster from Pfizer and Moderna that will target the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants. Both boosters are still awaiting final approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

But Rubin said much still remains to be learned about the way the virus mutates and what shape it might take in the future. He noted that confusion has contributed to the public's exhaustion with a virus that has stuck around for three calendar years, dating back to Trump's initial public health emergency declaration in March, 2020.

"There's a tremendous amount of uncertainty that's real," Rubin said. "No one knows the straight answers to a lot of these questions. There aren't a lot of incredibly simple messages out there."

The White House has struggled at times with its pandemic messaging. As a candidate, Biden promised to listen to his health and science advisers and not give false hope about the course the virus might take, an approach he said would break from the way Trump handled COVID.

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White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha speaks to reporters during a press briefing at the White House on July 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In office, Biden has made tackling the pandemic a top priority. But the president has sometimes projected confidence about the direction of the pandemic that later proved to be premature. The administration has also had to defend its decisions on mask mandates, social distancing guidelines and the process for approving a vaccine for children under the age of 5.

Polls taken over time indicate that the public has soured on Biden's handling of the pandemic.

In May, just 43% of U.S. adults said Biden was doing an excellent or good job of dealing with the pandemic, according to an extensive survey conducted by the Pew Research Center that was published last month. The figure was down from 54% in February of 2021. Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to disapprove of the government's handling of COVID since Biden took office, and were also more skeptical of vaccines and masking, the poll found.

Alec Tyson, one of the lead researchers for the Pew poll, which surveyed more than 10,000 adults, said the decline in popularity of Biden's pandemic efforts mirrored the decline in the public's confidence with Biden on a range of issues, as well as the drop in his overall job approval rating. Still, Tyson said the partisan divide on Biden's COVID policies was notable.

"The partisan gaps we see are as wide as they've ever been at any point in the coronavirus outbreak," Tyson said.

The silver lining for Biden may be that the public's fear of the pandemic is not what it once was. In January, 57% of Americans said they viewed the pandemic as a major threat, the Pew study found. The number has since dropped to 41%.

"The public is less acutely concerned about the outbreak [of COVID] than it was at early stages of the pandemic," Tyson said.

Pekosz said it's the government's responsibility to ensure complacency doesn't set in as the pandemic fades from the spotlight.

The Biden administration should ramp up its messaging that "we can't forget about the pandemic," he said. It would be a mistake, he added, to project that "we don't need to think about COVID, it's in the past."