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Posted on May 10, 2023 at 10:20 AM by Kari Bray
The federal Public Health Emergency for COVID-19 expires at the end of the day on Thursday, May 11, more than three years after the first U.S. case was reported here in Snohomish County.
It’s one of many milestones in the COVID response. Over time, the emergency effort has dialed back, from standing down mass vaccination and testing sites to the end of statewide mask mandates. These steps marked the transition from facing an unknown deadly virus to addressing an ongoing health threat that is becoming endemic.
So what does this latest update – the end of the Public Health Emergency – mean for people in Snohomish County? Here are some key takeaways for May 11 and beyond.
We’d love to shout, “The End!” and have COVID stop making people sick, but that’s not something we can do. What public health and partners can do is shift out of emergency mode and approach COVID as a threat that is here to stay, like many other contagious and potentially severe diseases.
The end of the emergency doesn’t mean the illness is less serious. We can’t lose sight of the toll it has taken – more than 1,500 lives lost in Snohomish County since 2020.
We’re focusing now on long-term efforts to reduce the spread and impacts of this disease. We have vaccines, treatments, and knowledge we didn’t have when the emergency was first declared, as well as good prevention habits we’ve used throughout the pandemic like handwashing, masking when appropriate, and staying home if we are ill.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that availability of vaccines and treatments such as Paxlovid and Lagevrio will generally not be affected by the ending of the emergency.
COVID vaccines are expected to be available at no out-of-pocket cost for those who have health insurance, and providers who receive COVID vaccines from the federal government’s supply still administer them at no cost with or without insurance. Recommended vaccines are a preventive health service and should be covered by private insurance plans, and people with Medicaid (Apple Health) or Medicare coverage will continue to have no-cost vaccination after May 11, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Coordination continues at the local, state, and federal level on long-term vaccine access regardless of insurance status. Although COVID vaccines may not be free to uninsured individuals at some provider locations after May 11, local public health and partners such as clinics and pharmacies are working on vaccine access for all, and the federal government has announced plans and funding to maintain vaccine availability for those without insurance.
Regarding treatment, it’s a good idea to check with your insurance plan on coverage. Out-of-pocket expenses for certain treatments may change when these products move to a more traditional U.S. healthcare model rather than being part of the emergency response. Medicaid will continue to cover COVID-19 treatment after May 11, at least through September of next year. For those without insurance coverage, COVID treatments will likely require payment.
COVID testing ordered and done by medical providers is generally still expected to be covered, though there may be co-pays for the appointment and differences in cost based on insurance and whether you go to an in-network vs. out-of-network healthcare provider under your plan. Testing is not guaranteed to be no-cost after May 11, and many insurance plans have yet to release information about what coverage will look like for testing.
Many of us got used to being tested at particular locations that were no-cost and convenient for us – such as a nearby clinic, lab, or drive-thru site – during the pandemic. After May 11, you should not assume that you can continue getting tested at the same locations for no cost. Please check with your insurance company and the testing provider before your next COVID test to find out if testing will be fully covered for you moving forward.
Programs that pay for free at-home tests (also called over-the-counter or OTC antigen tests) are dialing back. Private insurers may choose to continue covering at-home tests but no longer will be required to, so check with your insurance if you aren’t sure. The statewide program that mailed tests to households is ending, but the federal mailing program remains available at this time.
The Washington State Department of Health added COVID-19 to its list of notifiable conditions, so reporting to public health will continue for individuals who test positive. Settings like schools, child cares, and long-term care facilities should continue to report outbreaks to their local health department. In Snohomish County, that’s us, and you can find more info at www.snohd.org/covid.
There may be some changes coming to our local case count updates and other data resources from the state Department of Health (DOH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some reporting requirements from CDC are set to change, and CDC is ending its community level calculations and will move to monitoring COVID hospitalizations primarily. With frequent use of at-home tests and inconsistency in those being reported, data other than case counts or rates have become increasingly important indicators, such as hospitalization information. We'll update our case counts page and share more when we have a clearer picture of what local data updates will look like long-term.
There still are unknowns on exactly how specific funding, guidance, or other measures tied to the end of the emergency status could play out locally. We’ll also have to see what the 2023-24 COVID and flu season brings, and where we can best meet needs for vaccination, testing, treatment, or other resources.
The Snohomish County Health Department is grateful to everyone who has taken steps to keep themselves and others healthy over the last few years. Let’s keep working for a safe and healthy community.