UCSF's Bob Wachter Says COVID Still a 'Real Threat' — but He's Ready to Eat Inside a Restaurant

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Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of UCSF's Department of Medicine, says that COVID-19 still poses a serious threat and should continue to be taken seriously, but adds that the risk level is low enough now for him to cautiously resume pre-pandemic activities, like eating inside a restaurant on a chilly evening.  (Photo courtesy of UCSF)

President Biden faced criticism from many in the medical community this week after saying "the pandemic is over" during a wide-ranging CBS "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday.

"We still have a problem with COVID," Biden said. "We're still doing a lot of work on it, but the pandemic is over."

The surprise declaration struck many experts as inaccurate and irresponsible, as each day, some 300 to 400 people in the U.S. still die from the virus and tens of thousands of others are newly infected.

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"When you have the president of the U.S. saying the pandemic is over, why would people line up for their boosters? Why would Congress allocate additional funding for these other strategies and tools?" Dr. Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist and senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation, told NPR. "I am profoundly disappointed. I think this is a real lack of leadership."

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But Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF, took a more tempered approach in his interview Tuesday with The California Report's Madi Bolaños.

"There's no bright line that separates the pandemic from what follows the pandemic," he said. "I think it's reasonable to look at the situation now and say that the acute threat is far lower than it was, that the situation is relatively stable and probably ... a facsimile of what we're going to be facing for the next several years."

Wachter said the president's comments could prompt people to pay less attention to the virus, particularly at a moment when his administration is making a hard push for Americans to get the latest, updated booster shot.

But the real concern, he added, is that Americans are "just going to stop listening unless they believe we're giving them an accurate assessment. And the accurate assessment is COVID is a real threat."

But Wachter also said Biden was not being unreasonable in underscoring the many tools now available to help protect people from the virus, while allowing them to safely resume much of their pre-pandemic life.

"How do we shift toward an ongoing strategy for ourselves and as a society that has us keep ourselves as safe as possible while also beginning to get back to a more normal life?" he said.

Wachter — who has become one of the nation's go-to experts on COVID, in part due to his Twitter threads in which he shares his strategies for personal risk assessment — posted this week that he would now be willing to eat indoors at a restaurant in the Bay Area if outdoor dining wasn't an option. That call was based on a number of factors, including his age, health status, local transmission rates and the fact that he'd recently received the new booster.

"I did a lot of math and I came out with a calculation that the chances that any individual person — for example, my waiter or someone sitting (with) me ... (at) dinner — has COVID and feels fine is about 1 in 100. It's not zero. So there's a risk there," he said. "But the chances that I will get COVID from going out to dinner are probably 1 in 100 or lower."

Wachter's main concern, he added, remains the risk of so-called long COVID — a condition his wife has — which can include fatigue, brain fog, respiratory issues and other symptoms of the virus that persist several months after being infected. It's estimated that nearly 20 million Americans suffer from long COVID, according to Census Bureau data.

But based on his calculations, the risk of getting long COVID is about 1 in 1,000, and the risk of dying from COVID is about 1 in 200,000, he said.

"Those are levels of risk that I'm willing to accept if I want to go out with friends or family and it's too cold to eat outside," Wachter said. "I'd still prefer to eat outside, over inside. I think it's safer. It's not like I'm saying it's perfectly safe, but it has crossed my threshold to say the risk is low enough that I'm now willing to do it."

But, he added, people need to make their own informed choices.

"I'm not telling anybody it should cross their threshold or not," he said. "When I go in a restaurant, it's packed, bars are packed. So a lot of people have already made this choice long ago."

KQED’s Emma Silvers contributed reporting to this story.