The COVID-19 public health emergency ends Thursday, more than three years after the start of the pandemic – a change that will affect access to tests, vaccines and drugs.
It marks the end of an era of major government intervention to fight one of the worst public health crises in the U.S. Although COVID is still killing more than 1,000 Americans each week, the Biden administration argues that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over. Deaths and hospitalizations have been declining steadily for months.
Here's what to expect going forward.
Insurance will stop paying for covid tests
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The era of free coronavirus tests — both rapid and PCR — will end for most Americans.
- As of Thursday, the government will no longer require insurance companies to pay for up to eight rapid antigen tests a month per person.
- People can order free COVID tests from the federal government's COVIDtests.gov site until the end of the month.
- The cost of lab-based testing will also shift to private insurance plans.
- People on Medicare will still be able to get free PCR tests if prescribed by a physician. Those on Medicaid will have access to free testing through September 2024.
- A CDC program will still offer tests to those without insurance, pending availability.
Tests still may be available at community health clinics, local public health departments, libraries and other organizations, though many of these programs have already ended.
What to watch: Without bulk government orders, test manufacturers could scale back production, potentially leading to future shortages.
Vaccines will still be free for now
The federal COVID vaccine stockpile still has plenty of doses, which will remain free to those with or without insurance until supplies run out, likely sometime this summer or fall.
- The vaccines will still be free to those with insurance after that, since the Affordable Care Act makes all CDC-recommended vaccines free.
- For the uninsured, the Biden administration plans to use $1.1 billion in unspent COVID relief funds for a “Bridge Access” to pay for free vaccines through the end of 2024.
What to watch: Republicans are eyeing that COVID relief money as a possible bargaining chip in talks over raising the debt ceiling. If they successfully rescind those funds, the program to vaccinate uninsured people may shutter.
Paxlovid will be free while federal supplies last
Antiviral drugs like Paxlovid will remain free until the federal stockpile runs dry, likely sometime this year.
What to watch: After that, many insured people will likely have to contribute a copay, as they do for most drugs. Antiviral drugs will remain free to those with Medicaid until September 30, 2024.
Expanded telehealth access will largely remain
During the pandemic, the federal government relaxed rules about what sorts of medical treatment could be provided virtually. Much of that flexibility will remain, as lawmakers extended many telehealth waivers through the end of 2024.
What to watch: Rules that allowed controlled substances, like ADHD medication or drugs that treat opioid-use disorder, to be prescribed virtually were set to expire, but the Drug Enforcement Administration is extending those through at least Nov 11.
The CDC’s COVID tracking will change
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will stop tracking and reporting coronavirus infections, since states will no longer be required to report such data by the public health emergency order. The CDC will still track hospitalizations and deaths, but hospitals will only be required to report that data weekly, instead of daily.
What to watch: Wastewater monitoring of the virus, which can detect changes in transmission within a community, will continue. But many parts of the country lack this kind of surveillance.
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