A medical worker takes a swab sample from a woman at a COVID-19 testing site in New York, the United States, March 29, 2022.
Wang Ying | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
The US has extended the Covid public health emergency, clear evidence that the Biden administration still sees Covid as a crisis, despite President Joe Biden’s recent claim that the pandemic is over.
The public health emergency, first declared by the Trump administration in January 2020, has been renewed every 90 days since the pandemic began. The powers activated by the emergency declaration had a huge impact on the US healthcare system and social safety net, allowing hospitals to act more nimbly as infections surged and keeping millions of people enrolled in public health insurance.
Biden claimed in a TV interview in September that the “pandemic is over,” though he said Covid will continue to pose 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, have significantly reduced the threat Covid poses to the country’s health.
But hospitals and pharmacies have urged the Department of Health and Human Services to maintain the public health emergency until the US has a sustained period of low Covid transmission. Hospitals in particular have been inundated with patients every fall and winter since the beginning of the pandemic and at times pushed to the breaking point.
White House Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, in an interview earlier this month, said the president’s comments were “problematic” because some people may be losing their vigilance and not staying up to date on their vaccines.
“It’s obvious that that could be problematic because people would interpret it as completely over and we’re finally done, which isn’t the case — there’s no doubt about that,” said Fauci, who is stepping down in December.
The emergency declaration gives federal agencies broad powers to expand certain programs without congressional approval. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid under HHS, Dramatically expanded membership in Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income people, to an all-time high of more than 89 million people. HHS also expanded telehealth services, giving hospitals flexibility in how they deploy staff and beds when a flood of patients strains capacity.
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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters in a call last week that he would give states, health care providers and other stakeholders 60 days’ notice before lifting the public health emergency. This means HHS should let them know in November if the agency plans to lift the emergency in January.
Whenever the public health emergency finally ends, it will have a dramatic impact on the healthcare system in the US. HHS estimates that up to 15 million people will lose their Medicaid protection. Hospitals are also at risk of losing the flexibility they have relied on during Covid. Millions of struggling families will also lose extra money from the federal government’s feeding program.
HHS has also significantly expanded the role of pharmacies in administering vaccines in the United States, temporarily overriding state laws that, in some cases, limited what vaccines pharmacists could administer to certain age groups. It’s not yet clear if the nationalization of pharmacy vaccine regulations will expire if HHS decides to lift the public health emergency.
The Biden administration relies on pharmacies to give updated boosters to individuals ages 5 and older that target the dominant Omicron BA.5 subvariant. Federal health officials believe the new shots will offer better protection against infection and disease than the old ones, which aren’t working as well as they used to because the virus has mutated so heavily.
Public health officials are concerned about another big Covid surge this winter as people head indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, to escape the colder weather and as families gather over the upcoming holiday season.
Infections, hospitalizations and deaths have all fallen dramatically since the peak of the massive omicron surge last January, but according to CDC data, an average of more than 300 people still die from Covid each day and nearly 3,500 patients are hospitalized with the virus each day .
dr Ashish Jha, head of the White House Covid task force, said last week that 70% of people dying from Covid are aged 75 and over. The vast majority of those who are dying are either not up to date on their vaccines or are not receiving treatments like Paxlovid when they have breakthrough infections, Jha said.
“This is unacceptable, especially because we can now prevent almost every Covid death in the country with vaccines and treatments that we have,” Jha told reporters during a call. “If you are up to date with your vaccines and treated if 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 US is going in the right direction but Covid deaths are still too high. It’s also possible that a new variant could emerge this winter that may evade immunity even more than the Omicron variants the US is currently dealing with, he said.
“While we can feel good that we’re going in the right direction, we can’t let go of our vigilance,” Fauci said.