US extends Covid public health emergency

A medical worker takes a swab sample from a woman at a COVID-19 testing site in New York, United States, March 29, 2022.

Wang Yin | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

The United States has extended the Covid public health emergency, a clear demonstration that the Biden administration still views Covid as a crisis despite President Joe Biden’s recent assertion that the pandemic is over.

The public health emergency, first declared in January 2020 by the Trump administration, has been renewed every 90 days since the start of the pandemic. The powers enabled by the emergency declaration have had a huge impact on the US healthcare system and social safety net, allowing hospitals to act faster when infections rise and keep millions of people enrolled. to public health insurance.

Biden, in a television interview in September, claimed the “pandemic is over” although he said Covid would continue to present a health challenge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in August that high levels of immunity in the United States, combined with the wide availability of vaccines and treatments, had significantly reduced the threat that Covid poses to the country’s health.

But hospitals and pharmacies have called on the Department of Health and Human Services to keep the public health emergency in place until the United States experiences an extended period of low Covid transmission. Hospitals in particular have been beset with patients every fall and winter since the pandemic began, sometimes pushing them to breaking point.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview earlier this month said the president’s comments were “problematic” because some people might let their guard down and not stay up to date on their vaccines. .

“Obviously that could be problematic because people would interpret it as if it’s completely over and we’re over for good, which it’s not – there’s no doubt about that,” Fauci said. , who resigned in December.

Emergency declaration gives federal agencies broad authority to expand certain programs without congressional approval. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, under HHS, the dramatic increase in enrollment in Medicaid, public health insurance for low-income people, to an all-time high of more than 89 million people. HHS has also expanded telehealth services and given hospitals flexibility in how they can deploy staff and beds when an influx of patients strains capacity.

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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters on a call last week that he would give states, health care providers and other stakeholders 60 days notice before lifting the emergency. public health. That means HHS should let them know in November if the agency plans to lift the emergency in January.

Each time the public health emergency ends, it will have a dramatic impact on health care in the United States. HHS estimates that up to 15 million people will lose their Medicaid coverage. Hospitals also risk losing the flexibility they have relied on since Covid. Millions of struggling families will also lose extra money through the federal government’s nutrition program.

HHS also dramatically expanded the role of pharmacies in administering vaccines in the United States by temporarily overriding state laws that in some cases limited the vaccines pharmacists could administer to certain age groups. It is not yet known whether the nationalization of pharmacy vaccine rules will expire when HHS decides to lift the public health emergency.

The Biden administration is relying on pharmacies to administer updated boosters for those ages 5 and older that target the dominant omicron BA.5 subvariant. Federal health officials believe the new vaccines will offer better protection against infection and disease than the old ones, which don’t work as well as they once did because the virus has mutated so much.

Public health officials worry about another major Covid surge this winter as people head inland, where the virus spreads more easily, to escape colder weather and as families congregate during the upcoming holiday season.

Infections, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen significantly since the peak of the massive omicron surge last January, but more than 300 people still die each day from Covid on average and nearly 3,500 patients are hospitalized daily with the virus , according to CDC data.

Dr Ashish Jha, head of the White House Covid task force, said last week that 70% of people who die from Covid are 75 and over. The vast majority of those who die are not up to date on their vaccines or do not receive treatments such as Paxlovid when they have breakthrough infections, Jha said.

“This is unacceptable, especially because we can now prevent almost all Covid deaths in the country with the vaccines and treatments we have,” Jha told reporters on a call. “If you’re up to date on your vaccines and you’re treated when you have a breakthrough infection, your chances of dying are close to zero, even in this high-risk population,” he said.

Fauci said earlier this month that the United States is heading in the right direction, but Covid deaths are still too high. It’s also possible a new variant will emerge this winter that could evade immunity even further than the omicron variants the United States currently faces, he said.

“Although we can feel good that we are going in the right direction, we cannot let our guard down,” Fauci said.

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