Health · August 6, 2022

Biden administration plans to extend Covid emergency declaration

“Covid is not over yet. The pandemic is not over yet,” a senior Biden official said. “There’s no point in repealing that [declaration] given what we are seeing in terms of cases on the ground.

An HHS spokesman declined to comment, and people familiar with the matter warned that the situation could change before the Aug. 15 deadline to decide whether to go ahead with the statement.

The Biden administration has increasingly pointed to the availability of Covid vaccines and treatments as evidence that vaccinated and refreshed Americans are relatively safe to live with the virus. But even with this new stance, many administration health officials remain suspicious of the message that would send the end of the public health emergency declaration at a time when the number of cases exceeds 100,000 a day.

“It will end when the state of emergency ends,” a senior administration official summarized the internal stance on the statement.

The emergency designation has also provided agencies that have allowed the administration to expand access to Medicaid, Greenlight vaccines more quickly, and offer tests and therapeutics for free. If the emergency is to end, those flexibilities would need to be rolled back – a complex process hospital and health groups have warned could affect their ability to treat Covid patients.

The federal government has continually renewed the statement since the first Covid cases hit the US in January 2020. And while HHS has pledged to give states 60 days’ notice before they expire, the government has declined to set specific criteria for phasing, according to its emergency agencies.

However, the debate over whether to go ahead with the declaration has become more controversial. With vaccines and treatments widely available and with no remaining expectation that the government can stamp out Covid, health officials have increasingly debated in recent months over when that phase-out should take place and what it should look like.

In the most recent round of deliberations, some officials have allowed the statement to expire in October, dependent on the government successfully rolling out its next round of vaccines and, in some cases, averting a tumbling surge, two people familiar with the matter said. An end to the state of emergency this year could also demonstrate ahead of the elections that the country has indeed entered a new phase in the fight against the pandemic.

But such a move would likely spark fierce opposition from the healthcare industry and draw criticism from public health groups at the forefront of efforts to fight the virus and get more Americans vaccinated.

Some health officials also feared that formally ending the public health emergency would dampen any remaining sense of urgency in Congress to allocate additional money to the Covid response. The government’s call for billions more dollars to increase its stockpile of vaccines, tests and treatments has stalled in the Senate for months, although officials warn the lack of funding could hurt its ability to continue fighting the pandemic.

With reporting by Erin Banco.