WASHINGTON, Nov 11 (Reuters) – The United States will remain in a state of public health emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing millions of Americans to still receive free tests, vaccines and treatment, two Biden administration officials said on Friday.
The possibility of a winter surge in COVID cases and the need for more time to transition from a public health emergency to the private market were two factors that influenced the decision not to end the emergency in January, one of the officials said.
The public health emergency was first declared in January 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began, and has been renewed every quarter since 90 days. But the government in August began signaling that it planned to let it expire in January.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has promised to give states 60 days notice before allowing the state of emergency to expire, which would have been Friday had it not planned to renew it again in January. The agency gave no such notice, said a second official.
Health experts believe an increase in COVID-19 infections in the United States is likely this winter, another official said.
“We may be in the middle of one in January,” he said. “That’s not the time you want to dismiss a public health emergency.”
Daily cases in the US have dropped to an average of nearly 41,300 as of November 9, but an average of 335 people a day are still dying from COVID, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Daily US cases are expected to rise slightly to about 70,000 in February, driven by students returning to school and indoor gatherings related to cold weather, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said in an Oct. 21 analysis. will continue at current levels. Read more
Officials said there is still a lot of work to be done to remove the public health emergency.
The government has been paying for COVID vaccines, other tests, and certain treatments, as well as other care under the public health emergency (PHE) declaration. When the state of emergency expires, the government will begin transferring COVID health care to private insurance and government health plans.
Health officials held meetings with insurers and drugmakers about moving the sale and distribution of COVID vaccines and treatments to the private sector in August and October, but nothing has been publicly announced since then.
“The main motivation from the policy point of view is ensuring a smooth transition in the commercial market and the challenge of exposing the many protections that have been put in place,” said Dr. Jen Kates, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Extending PHE gives more time to manage that.”
The biggest challenge is uninsured people, he said. Most Americans have government-sponsored or private health insurance and are expected to pay nothing for COVID vaccines and boosters, or may incur out-of-pocket costs for testing and treatment.
Uninsured children will also continue to receive free vaccinations, but it is unclear how they and the 25 million uninsured adults will avoid paying the full cost of testing and treatment, and how those adults will receive vaccinations.
Their number is expected to increase as the state of emergency expires. HHS estimates that nearly 15 million people will lose health coverage after Congress’s requirement that Medicaid programs keep their enrollees expire and return to regular enrollment patterns.
Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Jeff Mason in Washington; Edited by Caroline Humer, Matthew Lewis and Rosalba O’Brien
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