Sep 20, 2022 - Podcasts

Is COVID transitioning from a pandemic to a problem?

President Biden said "the pandemic is over" in an interview with CBS’ "60 minutes" on Sunday. But the White House is still asking Congress for an additional $22.4 billion in COVID-19 funding. In the U.S., nearly 3,000 people died from COVID in the past week. The World Health Organization director-general says the end of the pandemic "is in sight," but that "we are not there yet."

  • Plus, a new spotlight on who gets sick pay in America.
  • And, the murder conviction that helped make podcasts popular, overturned.

Guests: Axios' Emily Peck and Kaiser Health News’ Julie Rovner.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Fonda Mwangi, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, September 20.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: a new spotlight on who gets sick pay in America. Plus, the murder conviction that helped make podcasts popular - overturned.

But first, is COVID finally transitioning from a pandemic…to just a problem? That’s today’s One Big Thing.

JOE BIDEN: The pandemic is over, if you notice no one is wearing masks everybody seems to be in pretty good shape and so I think it's changing.

NIALA: That's president Biden in an interview with CBS's 60 minutes on Sunday, the white house is still asking Congress for an additional $22.4 billion to keep funding the fight against COVID. The World Health Organization Director General says the end of the pandemic is “in sight.” But that we're not there yet. And in the US, nearly 3000 people died from COVID in the past week. So how close are we really to the end of this pandemic? And what effect does the president's message have?

Kaiser Health News’ Chief Washington Correspondent Julie Rovner is with us now to talk about this. Hey Julie.


NIALA: So let's just start with what President Biden said about the pandemic being over.

JULIE: Well, I think he was careful to try to couch it in a way, you know, he went on to say, we still have problems with COVID somebody, I can't remember who, forgive me, tweeted that we don't have a good transition from pandemic to problem. And I think this may be a wording problem more than anything else.

I mean, I think in some ways he's right, the emergency part is over. Although the public health emergency part is not over. So you gotta be careful with your semantics here.

NIALA: Right? What are public health officials saying about the state of the pandemic?

JULIE: So the spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services was forced to sort of come in behind the President and she tweeted that on this was Monday afternoon “The COVID public health emergency remains in effect and HHS will provide a 60 day notice to states before any possible termination or expiration.” There's a link to the FAQs. Why this is important is that the existence of the public health emergency is what does things like require states to keep people who've qualified for Medicaid on the rolls when the public health emergency ends, there's gonna be this massive redetermination of many millions of people.

It allows things like Medicare to use telehealth. There are a lot of things that are triggered by this public health emergency and a lot of people depending on its continuation and public health, both at the federal level and at the state and local level are working on ways to unwind it because we know it's obviously going to end at some point. But it's unlikely to end before the end of the year, because it would be another 90 days in October. We're less than 60 days away from that and HHS hasn't said they're ending it in October, therefore they're not gonna end it in October. So it goes at least until January.

NIALA: Julie, fall will officially be here by the end of the week. How are the cooler months going to affect where COVID stands?

JULIE: Well, we're waiting to find out. There is a lot of concern that we could have another resurgence of COVID. A lot of people are going back to work. Kids have gone back to school. As the weather gets cooler, people will be inside together and breathing more air together. There's also concern that we could have a worse than usual flu season, which will add to the complications of all of this even if it isn't COVID. That's why public officials are urging people to get both their flu shots and their COVID boosters.

NIALA: Julie, I wanna go back to something you said about the idea of COVID becoming a problem rather than it being a pandemic. How do we know?

JULIE: Well, there are obviously some official ways. I mean The World Health Organization has, you know, an official measure of whether or not we're in a pandemic, they had an official measure that got us declared in the pandemic, they'll have an official measure to get us declared out of the pandemic. The president seems to be basing it on hospitalizations, which are still kind of high, they're just lower than they were. You know, it depends if you're immunocompromised or, you know, if you're really concerned about getting COVID, it's still an emergency.

NIALA: Julie, I imagine part of why the president said what he did is because as we think about COVID transitioning from a pandemic to being a problem, we see death rates going down, which is what we've seen consistently. Is there a way for people to sort of gauge this in between stage and what stage we're at right now?

JULIE: Well, of course you can go to the CDCs website and, you know, see how COVID is in your community. Of course, they kind of graded that on a curve. So now it's harder to tell how much COVID there really is. People are testing at home. Those tests don't necessarily get reported, but at least you can get an idea if there are high rates of COVID in your community, you can't necessarily get a good idea if there are low rates in your community. This has become the, sort of ,do it yourself public health issue, where people have to sort of decide on their own what kind of risks they're willing to take.

NIALA: So what do you think is behind what the president said?

JULIE: I think the president is doing sort of what in some ways needs to be done. We're gonna have to transition away from this state of emergency at some point. From everything I've read I’m not sure it was planned. It might have just sort of been in an aside, but certainly the administration has been leading us in this direction for a while. We've taken off a lot of the mandates, we've taken off the requirements for people to you know, have negative tests before they fly into the United States. We are acting as if the emergency is over. So now he's just kind of saying it to go with it.

NIALA: Kaiser Health News’ Chief Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, who's also the host of the ‘What the Health’ podcast. Thanks, Julie.

JULIE: Thanks.

In a moment, the push for more paid sick leave in America.


A new spotlight on who gets sick pay in America

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Rail companies narrowly avoided the shutdown of the US rail system last week because of employee discontent over working conditions, including lack of sick pay. About 94% of high-income American workers have paid sick time off, but if you're a low income worker, that number drops all the way down to 53%. Axios' Markets Correspondent Emily Peck has been digging deeper into the very human side of the US supply chain. Emily first, let's just start with that stat. Why is this discrepancy so large?

EMILY PECK: In the US, we don't have any national policy or requirement that says employers must provide paid time off to workers when they get sick so it's at company discretion and companies give better benefits to higher paid workers. Simple as that.

NIALA: And how does the US then stack up against other countries in terms of requiring paid sick leave? Is the US unusual?

EMILY: Yes, the US is unusual among developed rich countries in requiring zero coverage for sick time. The UK, Ireland, Canada, France, european countries, they all have some mandate where people get paid when they take time off because they are sick.

NIALA: Now, some states and cities do have sick pay requirements, but how difficult does that become for workers in practice to actually use sick days?

EMILY: So some of these sick day policies that employers put in place, setting aside even the state policies, just, for an hourly worker who needs to take a day off because they're sick. Companies can often make it very difficult to actually take that time off. For example, they could require a doctor's note and you know, if you're sick, you're sick, you stay home. You don't always go to the doctor for that. So that becomes kind of this onerous step that people can't take, or maybe they get a lot of companies have point systems. So sure you can take that day off because you're sick or because you have to take someone to the hospital or urgent care, but you get a point and you accrue enough points and you get penalized sometimes even fired, which is what happened to some of these railway workers.

NIALA: So then Emily, looking ahead, are we likely to see anything change here?

EMILY: I don't think so. Back in 2020 advocates who'd been fighting for paid sick leave for a long time, they thought that was their moment. If there was ever a time for the us to move on, paid sick leave, they thought it's gonna be during a pandemic when it's a matter of life and death. So, they did get a temporary policy put in place in 2020 but it expired and that was it. And we haven't seen anything else come down the line and efforts from the White House to do more haven't really gone anywhere either. So it doesn't seem likely to me that we'll have a national policy on sick leave anytime soon, right now with the labor shortage, we are seeing how worker leverage can make some gains, like with the railroad workers.

NIALA: Emily Peck is a markets correspondent at Axios. Thanks, Emily.

EMILY: Thank you.

The murder conviction that helped make podcasts popular, overturned

NIALA: One final headline before we go today – an update to a case in Baltimore that’s been ongoing for years… Adnan Syed - whose case was made popular through the podcast Serial - had his 2000 murder conviction vacated by a judge yesterday. He had been serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Syed has always maintained his innocence. Yesterday, the judge gave prosecutors 30 days to request a new trial or drop the charges - and Syed was ordered to home detention for now.

That’s it for us today. You can always reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

NIALA: Confused by crypto? Can’t keep up with the Metaverse? The Slate Money podcast is here for you. Every week, familiar voices including Felix Salmon, Emily Peck, and Elizabeth Spiers break down the latest in business and finance news. Listen to Slate Money every Saturday morning wherever you get your podcasts.

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