It may seem like the COVID pandemic has been in the rearview mirror for many months – but as recently as May 11, the government officially ended the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE).
The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) may declare a public health emergency under Section 319 of the Public Health Services (PHS) Act.
COVID-19 PHE had been in effect since January 2020 – for almost three and a half years.
So now that the public health emergency is officially over, how will things change?
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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said that while the virus remains a public health priority, “we are now in a better position in our response than at any time during the pandemic and well positioned to emerge from the emergency phase and ending COVID-19 PHE,” according to a statement from the website.
“The pandemic is not over, but thankfully it has faded,” said Martin Blaser, director of the Rutgers Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine. in New Jerseyin a statement to Fox News Digital.
“We are closer to the ‘endemic’ level than the ‘epidemic’ level,” he continued.
“It will probably be with us for a while, maybe indefinitely. So we have to get used to it and adapt to our new reality.”
Cases and deaths have steadily declined
In terms of hospitalization trends from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States has gone from a peak in weekly hospitalizations of over 100,000 in February 2021 and April 2022 to a peak in hospitalizations of 40,000 in October 2022 and May 2023.
“COVID-19 is still very much around, but it’s more manageable given widespread immunity and effective antiviral drugs,” said Dr. Shana Johnson, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. in Scottsdale, Arizonatold Fox News Digital.
“The pandemic is not over, but fortunately it has faded.”
“People aged 50 and over and those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and obesity are at higher risk of developing serious illness,” she added.
Deaths from COVID-19 have followed a similar trend, dropping from a peak of over 25,000 weekly deaths in February 2021 to less than 5,000 in each month of 2023.
Access to tests, treatments
“The end of the COVID-19 emergency declaration means that people will face fewer COVID-related obligations, but also that they will receive fewer free resources to help prevent, detect and treat the disease,” he said. said Blaser of Rutgers.
During the COVID emergency, hundreds of Medicare and Medicaid waivers and flexibilities have been made available to expand access to care.
Now, “given the current state of COVID-19, this excess capacity is no longer needed,” HHS said in its statement.
As pricing for at-home COVID-19 tests and drugs shifts to manufacturers and health insurance companies, Arizona’s Johnson said individual health plans will determine the cost to consumers.
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“The biggest change will be in your wallet,” she said. “We go back to ‘checking with your health plan’ for your coverage, with differences depending on whether you are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance, or no insurance.”
Although COVID testing coverage will change, the U.S. government will continue to provide free testing in some communities, the HHS website says.
People can still order tests online at COVIDtests.gov until the end of the month.
Another key change marked by the end of the emergency is that HHS will no longer be able to access and monitor COVID lab test reports.
“HHS will no longer have this express authority to require this data from labs, which will affect the reporting of negative test results and impact the ability to calculate percent positivity. [the percentage of positive results] for COVID-19 testing in certain jurisdictions,” the agency said.
“There is now a lot of immunity in the human population due to natural infections and vaccines.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will continue to report COVID data, with some changes.
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For example, the agency will no longer highlight case and death data on its COVID Data Tracker.
Vaccine data will be reported on a monthly rather than weekly basis.
People at high risk should exercise caution, doctor says
For the most part, healthy people can return to their pre-pandemic lives if they haven’t already – but those with weakened immune systems or other chronic illnesses will need to be more vigilant than before COVID, a noted Blaser.
“This will involve avoiding risky situations, some masks, continuing testing and vaccinations, and seeing doctors if they are sick,” he said.
“There will be less protection from other people using masks, to get vaccinated and do other things that would reduce exposure to COVID.”
Healthy people should always behave responsibly if they are sick, Blaser added.
“Wear a mask if you have respiratory symptoms and stay home if you know you are sick,” he recommended.
Potential for future COVID variants
As people ease blanket precautions and become less dependent on vaccines, Blaser said a new wave of COVID variants could emerge faster and with more consequences — but he thinks the country is in a much better position for the future. manage than it was in 2020.
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“There is now a lot of immunity in the human population due to natural infections and vaccines against none before,” he said.
“We also have a repertoire of treatments now available and likely a very shortened development and production pipeline if significant new variants emerge.”
Blaser believes that if there is a new wave of COVID cases, many people will immediately take action to protect themselves and their families.
“We should have good ways to deal with it by restarting different degrees of social isolation (including masking), vaccination and treatment if necessary,” he said.
What will not change with the end of the PHE
Even after the public health emergency is over, people will still have access to COVID vaccines at no cost.
Antiviral treatments, such as Paxlovid and Lagevrio, will also be available, HHS said on its website.
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As the CDC states on its website, “drugs to prevent severe cases of COVID-19, such as Paxlovid, will remain available free of charge while supplies last. After that, the price will be determined by the drug’s manufacturer. and your health insurance coverage”.
FDA Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) will also continue to be in place for COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.
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Access to most Medicare telehealth flexibilities will also continue through December 2024, HHS said.
The government will also continue to provide support and services to those affected by the long COVID.