COVID-19 public health emergency will go beyond mid-July

Healthcare groups feared government officials would announce that the emergency declaration would not be renewed.

After much speculation, it appears the COVID-19 public health emergency is going to last beyond its scheduled expiration in mid-July.

Healthcare advocates expressed concern and anxiety late last week and early this week about the possibility that the public health emergency could soon expire. U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra had repeatedly pledged the federal government would provide 60 days notices before ending the public health emergency.

With the emergency only slated to last until July 15, some healthcare organizations worried the administration would be giving notice this week that the emergency would be allowed to lapse.

In an email Thursday, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services wrote, “The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency remains in effect and as HHS committed to earlier, we will provide a 60-day notice to states before any possible termination or expiration.” The HHS spokesperson didn’t specify how long the public health emergency would last.

CNN, Bloomberg and other media outlets reported that the public health emergency would continue beyond July.

The public health emergency was initially declared in early 2020 after the arrival of COVID-19, and the government has approved 90-day renewals since that time. Becerra approved the last extension in mid-April.

The public health emergency gives federal agencies and healthcare providers more tools to combat the coronavirus.

Many could lose insurance coverage when the public health emergency expires. When the emergency ends, some states will make new determinations about who is eligible for healthcare coverage.

As many as 15 million Americans, including 6.7 million children, could lose coverage. If that happens, patients would suffer and healthcare providers would face difficult challenges, according to the American Hospital Association and other groups.

Under the public health emergency, hospitals and health systems say they can expand capacity more quickly to treat COVID-19 patients and care for other patients as well. Health systems have been given waivers allowing expanded usage of telehealth, which has soared during the pandemic.

With the emergency declaration, the Food and Drug Administration has utilized emergency use authorizations for vaccines, treatments and tests.

In making the case to continue the emergency declaration, health systems have pointed to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

Experts are concerned about the prospects of a summer spike of COVID-19 cases, or another uptick in the fall, said Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association. With cases rising, Foster said it makes sense to continue the public health emergency.

“We don’t want to move in and out of public health emergencies unnecessarily,” Foster said this week.

COVID-19 hospitalizations remain well below the peaks seen in January, but they are rising. The 7-day average of COVID hospitalizations topped 16,000 between May 10-16, an increase of 17% over the previous week.

About one-third of Americans live in areas where the risk of COVID-19 is high enough that they should consider wearing masks in indoor public spaces, federal officials said Wednesday. Most of those areas of higher transmission are in the Northeast and Midwest.

On Wednesday, officials said Becerra tested positive for COVID-19.

Sixteen healthcare groups sent a letter to the health department last week urging federal officials to continue the public health emergency.

Earlier this year, lawmakers and the White House agreed to extend telehealth waivers for about five months beyond the expiration of the public health emergency. Healthcare organizations have pressed Washington for reforms allowing permanent access to telehealth, including the ability to prescribe medications remotely.

Some healthcare advocates, including the Medical Group Management Association, have said they would like more than 60 days notice before the expiration of the public health emergency so they can have more time to plan.

In a letter to the health department, the MGMA asked federal officials “to carefully evaluate best practices for ending these waivers and solicit stakeholder input where necessary as to avoid unintended consequences that could affect access to care.”

Becerra has previously said it would be difficult to give more than 60 days notice.

Congress is still wrestling over President Biden’s request for $22.5 billion to fight COVID-19. The U.S. has passed 1 million deaths attributed to COVID-19.