Thursday marked the end of Covid-19’s public health emergency status in the US, concluding more than three years of free access to testing, vaccines, virtual accommodations and treatment for the majority of Americans.
The end of the emergency designation comes just weeks after the World Health Organization declared an end to the global health emergency. But the nation’s leading health officials also wanted to be sure Americans don’t confuse this marker for the end of Covid-19 concerns.
“This does not mean it’s over. This is just a new phase of managing it,” Dr Becky Smith, infectious disease specialist and director of Duke Health News, said. “The ability to make the transition out of the public health emergency phase signals a lot of successes in vaccine development, immunity and effective therapeutics.
“All of those successes have paid off and now because we’re seeing less severe disease we can sort of fold it into how we think about other respiratory infections.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates more than 1,000 people are still dying of Covid-19 in the United States every week and many suffer from long Covid symptoms months or years after being affected. Meanwhile, at the height of the pandemic, there were sometimes upwards of 20,000 people dying in the country in just one week.
According to the CDC, both vaccines and medication, like Pfizer’s Paxlovid, will remain available for free “while supplies last”. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted access to these supplies under the Covid-19 emergency use authorization declaration and insured Americans can continue to get vaccinated at no cost.
However, most Americans will be left to foot the bill for testing. Without public health emergency designation, insurance providers aren’t required to waive costs for testing. The federal government will continue to distribute tests online via their website through the end of May.
For those who have Medicaid benefits, a program which largely insures low-income families, at-home and in-office testing will remain free until 24 September, when federal funding expires. At this point, those who are uninsured will no longer have access to free testing, though community health organizations and local clinics are still likely to offer these supplies.
There are other ways that the emergency designation changed the US healthcare system that could extend beyond Thursday.
Telehealth and telemedicine, for which many restrictions were lifted to expand access and stop viral spread, will remain largely intact for now.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act passed last December and included provisions that extend access to telehealth through December 2024 for Americans with Medicare. In addition, clinics in rural areas can continue to see patients remotely.
Through November 2024, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced, providers can still prescribe controlled substances via telehealth after the emergency is lifted.
But for Medicaid recipients and children enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, telehealth flexibilities are up to the states.
After years of updating maps and statistics, the Biden administration’s Covid-19 response team will disband after Thursday and Americans will lose access to data collected and shared by the CDC. Federal tracking of Covid-19 infections will be largely left to individual states.
The Department of Health and Human Services will also no longer require labs to report Covid-19 test results, meaning data regarding test positivity at the county level will no longer be available.
The CDC will end weekly updates of case and death counts and officials urge states to sign agreements to enable the sharing of vaccine administration data.